Gretchen Mullen is an award-winning journalist and the author of the blog Skeptic Review. Michael Isaacson has a PhD in economics. He is the cofounder of the Antifa group, Smash Racism DC. Mullan and Isaacson’s long on-going correspondence on Letter tackles free speech, policing, media coverage, fascist recruiting techniques and Antifa. Halfway through their exchange, the journalist Andy Ngo was attacked by members of Antifa, while covering a rally. This event shifted the focus of the conversation from the nature of fascism to violence as a political tactic.
The writers address inflammatory topics in a way that would surely descend quickly into insults in the gladiatorial arena of Twitter. Instead, with tact and care, Mullen prompts Isaacson to outline his political worldview in an attempt to find common ground. While I find some of Isaacson’s views very troubling, he is palpably honest. There is no spin here: this is a man with deep convictions. He also has some helpful insights into fascist ideology.
The correspondence covers too wide a range of topics to be addressed in this brief article. I’ll focus on some jumping off points for an exploration of fascism; then, offer some brief thoughts on the Andy Ngo incident.
Some argue that the word fascism no longer has any meaning—and is only applicable to Germany and Italy up to 1945. They reserve the term for historical figures—just as you might talk of pre-Raphaelite painters or beat poets. I find it more useful as a label for a tendency of thought, with fuzzy but broadly recognisable contours.
Defining fascism is tricky. Mullen describes it as “like a virus … able to … morph itself into something different when necessary.” As John Steinbeck puts it, “It isn’t that the evil thing wins … but that it doesn’t die.” Isaacson describes fascism as “an intellectual and social tradition.” In his dissection of Italian fascism, Umberto Eco defines it as “a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives,” which, despite its intellectual incoherence, has profound psychological appeal: “Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations.”
We should not confuse fascism with traditional conservatism—with its preference for limited government and its cautious attitude to sweeping change. Fascism, by contrast, seeks to endow the state with an almost mystical power and advocates revolutionary measures to bring about its vision.
The Appeal of Fascism
Isaacson has published a field guide to fascism, characterised by surprising compassion for those seduced by these ideologies, which, he explains, “give the adherent a sense of purpose and destiny that is especially appealing if someone has been abused or abandoned.” In common with most cults, fascism targets the lonely. Hannah Arendt writes that even a chess club can inoculate against totalitarian ideology, because the players find connection and meaning there, whereas, when a person lacks social bonds, he often “derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement.” Johann Hari views lack of connection as the main reason so many of us suffer from depression. The sense of belonging to a tribe, a race, a territory fills a spiritual gap: “To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country,” writes Eco.
The fascist Blut und Boden ideal is the polar opposite of cosmopolitan rootlessness. “To be rooted,” argues Simone Weil “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” This has economic implications too. In his recent book Whiteshift, Eric Kaufmann connects fears about immigration with the anxieties of the somewheres, a concept borrowed from David Goodhart to describe those who are tied to a specific geographical location and cannot or do not want to move in search of work if their region suffers an economic downturn. While Andrew Yang is absolutely no fascist himself, this may explain his appeal to some on the far right. Yang is—rightly—concerned about the effects of AI on jobs, a concern which resonates with those alienated by the ruthless mechanisms of modern economics, some of whom are also vulnerable to fascist recruitment.
Isaacson describes fascism as “built on an oppressive egoism, applying capitalist ethics of individual competition to all aspects of life,” adding that “fascist ideologies see individuals dominating others as organically shaping the political structure of society.” This focus on individuals, however, is mistaken: fascism regards history as a series of power struggles between groups. It differs from conventional right-wing politics in that it is usually anti-capitalist. As Isaacson himself also writes, capitalism encourages free competition between individuals, so fascists oppose “the capitalist system on the basis that it subverts … ‘natural’ hierarchies.” Much fascist nostalgia is based on a longing for a return to pre-capitalist, feudal, aristocratic or caste-based societies, in which people are stratified in accordance with accidents of birth. Umberto Eco describes it as a form of “aristocratic and militaristic elitism,” which “cruelly implies contempt for the weak.” As Susan Sontag puts it, it celebrates the “triumph of power.”
Fascist hierarchies are justified using a garbled understanding of evolution as the survival of the fittest—in Herbert Spencer’s phrase, often mistakenly attributed to Darwin. While fascists frequently co-opt victimhood identity politics in an attempt to elicit sympathy, the ideology itself lionises victors. Fascists, as Isaacson points out, fetishize “identities they can claim have had a history of dominance … whiteness, heterosexuality and maleness.” “The identity,” Isaacson writes, “is conceived as a living entity that has managed to survive hostile forces. It is the explanation for this survival … that forms the basis for the bigotries for which fascist ideologies are so well known.” Hegemony, to the fascist mind, implies intrinsic superiority, an “evolutionary biological destiny.” In this circular might makes right thinking, the ability to exert power over others itself implies that that power is deserved.
Fascists often attempt to use biology—especially so-called race science—to back up these claims, mostly by citing correlations between race and average IQ. While, clearly, not everyone studying this topic is motivated by fascism, fascists seize on such reports, since this is the one possible area of respectable science that suggests a link between ethnic heritage and mental capacity (they tend to gloss over the inconvenient fact that East Asians average higher scores than white Europeans on many such tests). However, fascist ideology is mostly reliant not on science but on symbolism—“fascism is theatre,” as Jean Genet allegedly recognised—and on myth. As Mullen puts it, fascists employ “alternative accounts of history,” in a “rewriting of reality,” which “draws upon history, biology and world religions.” Isaacson agrees that “they … regard the world as an apocalyptic novel—searching for symbols & signs and drawing analogies between literature and decontextualized scientiﬁc & historical fact.” Despite the preoccupation with IQ, fascism is profoundly anti-intellectual. As Susan Sontag points out, “A principal accusation against the Jews within Nazi Germany was that they were urban, intellectual, bearers of a destructive corrupting ‘critical spirit.’” For fascists, Eco reminds us, “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity … Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
Is the Threat Exaggerated?
Can activists like Isaacson be viewed as scaremongering? Given that, as Mullen points out, white nationalist and Neo-Nazi rallies attract such tiny numbers in the US, would it not be more prudent to ignore them: “we often see a rally where 12 white supremacists show up and are met with 600 counter protesters … doesn’t this type of protest just give the white supremacists the very attention they want?” Mullen argues that “some of what I call the radicalized left … have elevated the threat of neo-fascism to a moral panic.” If we define fascism too broadly or become too paranoid at every possible whiff of white nationalism, we risk instigating witch hunts, “accusing,” Mullen points out, “public intellectuals and YouTube stars as gateways to the alt-right.”
To assess how much of a threat an ideology poses, you need to predict its future consequences—a task for which I feel unqualified. However, I don’t think fascism can be dismissed as a fringe movement, espoused only by cranks. Globally, fascist ideology remains a major threat. The resurgence of militant ethnonationalism in the world’s largest democracy, home to one fifth of humanity, shows how influential these ideas continue to be. (For more on the situation in India, see here, here and here. See also the interview with Rohit Chopra and Rohini Mohan on Areo’s Two for Tea podcast.)
In the US, the election of Donald Trump has arguably emboldened the far right. With his disdain for the press, whom he has dubbed “the enemy of the people,” his calls for political rivals to be imprisoned (“lock her up”), his suggestion that some congresswomen of colour—all of them US citizens—should be “sent back” and many similar remarks, Trump adopts the rhetoric of an authoritarian. In both his nostalgia for an elysian past—make America great again—and his encouragement of a cult of personality—“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody … and I wouldn’t lose any voters”—Trump portrays himself not as the representative of a political party, but as the figurehead of a populist movement. Individual reasons for supporting Trump vary: I would certainly not equate most Trump supporters with fascists. But the cult of the strongman leader—the corollary, on an individual level, of the master race—is characteristically fascist. His Twitter tantrums and brazen lies also suggest that Trump considers himself above normal criticism. It is the behaviour of a stroppy guru, a larping tyrant.
Countering Fascist Speech
Paranoia about fascism can have a chilling effect on freedom of speech, which includes the freedom to choose what we read and hear. Mullen asks Isaacson:
Do you believe someone can move you to the alt-right by simply exposing you to ideas? By debating current societal concerns? By examining both sides of a topical issue? By speaking to public figures you feel don’t deserve a platform? … are individuals responsible for the way they digest the information … Or [are] some ideas too dangerous?
I am a free speech absolutist. I consider freedom of expression a non-negotiable basic human right. It is in the nature of freedoms, however, to be vulnerable to abuse. Freedom of speech has perhaps the worst trade-offs of any fundamental value. While I am a Pinkerian optimist about the prospect of the best ideas winning out over the long term, over the shorter term, bad but persuasive actors—including fascist demagogues—can use speech to win people over to their pernicious causes and to whip up a frenzy of xenophobic hatred.
Since we cannot control people’s thoughts, however, the only way to suppress speech is through violence and intimidation. This can have the counterproductive effect of making forbidden opinions more enticing. While I do not consider them fascist, the popularity of the Intellectual Dark Web—whose name suggests they will bring truths previously kept in the shadows to light—and of Quillette and the renewed interest in race and IQ links bear witness to this. People tend to resent intellectual paternalism and the internet makes it particularly easy to investigate taboo topics.
Ironically, attempts to suppress politically inconvenient speech have allowed Trump, one of the most consistently and gratuitously mendacious public figures of our time to present himself as, in Roger Berkowitz’s words,
the truth-teller, the one who reveals those hidden truths that polite society and the elites refuse to utter. And because political elites are so careful to not offend anyone and have placed so many topics and truths off the table of common conversation, Trump looks like the only person in the country willing to tell the truth.
Isaacson argues that his priority is to prevent recruitment, not silence speech: “I don’t give a shit if you have a fascist opinion; I care if you take fascist action.” Street violence of the kind practised by black bloc Antifa seems likely to prove particularly ineffective for that purpose, however, given how much far right recruitment takes place online, often on anonymous forums. He argues, more convincingly, that “public opinion is rarely settled by debate” and that fascist rallies and marches are “shows of power,” designed to “demonstrate popularity.” By making fascists afraid to gather—because of possible violent repercussions from Antifa—activists, Isaacson might suggest, prevent them from amassing enough public support to intimidate others or provide cover for those who might join them.
Free speech, indeed, does not include the obligation to debate every idea. When Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, invited Bertrand Russell to discuss the merits of fascism with him, in 1962, the philosopher declined on the grounds that “the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in the deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.” Extremists can be persuaded through conversation—as cases like those of Megan Phelps-Roper, Maajid Nawaz and Christian Picciolini show—but, for most of us, there is little value in debating someone whose aim is merely to posture, obfuscate or troll, nor in engaging a fervent ideologue who values staying loyal to a leader over discovering the truth. Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarians attempt, in their discourse, to foster “extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it” and that “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is … people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction … and … between true and false … no longer exist.” In his article, “Nazis Have Always Been Trolls,” Adam Serwer cites a reporter in the New York Times in 1930, describing Hitler’s acolytes: “Apparently it matters little to his followers what he says. Their chief concern is how he says it.” In the same article, he highlights Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 description of the futility of arguing with anti-Semites:
Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous … they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.
This does not mean, however, that violence is the only fitting response. Isaacson himself suggests a number of alternative strategies. Mullen points readers towards an article by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert, who has documented some creative responses to fascism, such as parody and clowning.
Isaacson’s arguments in defence of Antifa are at their most tenuous when the conversation shifts to the attack on journalist Andy Ngo. Mullen makes it clear that “No matter how far we go in this conversation, I am not going to be able to justify or condone Andy’s assault.” While most commentators have agreed with Mullen, Ngo himself has been the subject of controversy. Some have suggested that he may be exaggerating the extent of his injuries to gain sympathy and GoFundMe donations. Given that Ngo himself tracks hate crime hoaxes, these critics argue that we should treat his account with the same scepticism as he does other victim testimony. This is reasonable, but irrelevant. If you intentionally hit someone hard over the head you are morally responsible for any injuries that might occur, which may include subarachnoid haemorrhage. If your victim is unharmed, you are lucky, not innocent. Isaacson explicitly condones the attack—even if it caused a brain bleed—pointing out that, “you don’t beat someone up so that they walk away unscathed … you have to be comfortable with the unseemly consequences.” He claims that Ngo doxes Antifa members. However, as Mullen shows, doxing is a strategy Antifa itself advocates. She cites one of their manuals, which provides detailed instructions. Finally, Ngo is often accused of bias, because, as Mullen points out, in the past he focused exclusively on Antifa and did not report on street violence on the part of far right groups, such as Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys—a questionable choice, but still no excuse for violence. At this point, having been a victim, his preoccupation with Antifa violence seems entirely understandable.
Isaacson offers a range of different rationalisations for the use of street violence. The state employs violence, through its police, army and border control agents, he argues: “physical confrontation and the threat of it … structures society.” He offers a postmodernist argument that violence is simply “a moral signifier,” which should be understood in primarily symbolic terms. There is little evidence to suggest that punching Nazis makes the public more sympathetic towards them, he points out elsewhere. Richard Spencer is still despised, despite millions of views of him getting sucker-punched: most seem to feel schadenfreude, not pity, at the sight of a hated figure receiving what they see as his comeuppance. Andy Ngo’s case, however, is very different. The spectacle of a masked mob attacking an unarmed journalist has, as Mullen points out, only led much of the public to conclude that “Antifa are the real fascists.” Isaacson does nothing to dispel this image when, in the most shocking moment of the letter exchange, he expresses his support for “that guy in Dallas who picked off five pigs a few years back.”
As Isaacson points out, “fascists did not invent the political use of physical force.” Fascism is a set of ideological convictions: it is not defined by a specific strategy. Any group can adopt violence. As events in Myanmar and Sri Lanka have shown, even Buddhists can use violence for their purposes. Yet fighting fascists with vigilante street violence seems especially ironic. Violence “is … the only thing that fascists themselves would actually respect,” Isaacson argues. This, to me, is the strongest argument for restraint. Fascism is an inherently violent ideology: it idealises physical strength and power over others; it views brute force as a proxy for merit. If we wish to combat this ideology, we have to be clear that we do not share that attitude. Someone who condones extrajudicial killings of policemen and violence against journalists can never be our moral representative. On the contrary, such actions not only discredit Antifa, they unfortunately make many discount the threat of fascism altogether.
Mullen and Isaacson’s correspondence is on-going. It is a model of good conversation. Despite the emotive subject matter and the incendiary views expressed, it has remained civil. Isaacson’s opinions are a combination of the insightful and the extraordinarily callous—which provides a reminder that even people holding extreme positions can offer valuable perspectives. The horrifying recent massacre in El Paso, motivated by virulent xenophobia and racism, has, sadly, shown how important it remains that we seek a better understanding of fascist ideology and how to tackle it.
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