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Scary Clowns

When it comes to the far right, ridiculous and dangerous aren’t mutually exclusive

on Saturday In Philadelphia, hundreds of people participated in a ritual that has played out in cities across the country countless times over the past three years. Far right activists of variously incoherent political persuasions gathered in Independence National Park—in sight of both Independence Hall and the National Museum of American Jewish History—to speechify at each other about political correctness and the moral depravity of the left. All around them, crowds of protesters heckled and chanted, declaring their opposition to racism and fascism and swearing their commitment to a better world, or at the very least a world wherein racists and fascists don’t get to rally in downtown Philadelphia unharassed.

Last weekend’s “We the People” rally followed a month of intensifying right-wing violence against leftists, Jews, women, and people of color in the run-up to the midterm elections, and it came just days after President Trump threatened anti-fascist and antiracist organizers directly. “These people, like the Antifa—they better hope that the opposition to Antifa decides not to mobilize,” he told The Daily Caller. “Because if they do, they’re much tougher. Much stronger. Potentially much more violent. And Antifa’s going to be in big trouble. But so far they haven’t done that and that’s a good thing.” He continued: “The other side, it’s the military. It’s the police. It’s a lot of very strong, a lot of very tough people . . . They’re sitting back and watching and they’re getting angrier and angrier.”

As it turned out, no more than forty or fifty attendees showed up for the rally itself—a much lower turnout than the organizers had hoped for and one that was dwarfed by the counter-demonstration, which had been organized by a left-wing coalition operating under the aegis of the PushBack Campaign. The “We the People” organizers, Zach Rehl and Holly Delcampo, failed to win the support of Pennsylvania’s more established militias or the violent racists of Keystone United, a neo-Nazi skinhead gang based in Harrisburg that had expressed interest in joining the event before PushBack and Philly Antifa publicized their intent to counter-demonstrate. The local Proud Boys who Rehl and Delcampo had recruited to run security for the event received instructions from national leadership not to show up in any great numbers, or in uniform.

Last weekend’s “We the People” rally followed a month of intensifying right-wing violence against leftists, Jews, women, and people of color.

In private chat logs obtained by antifascists, Delcampo repeatedly deferred to the Proud Boys, including Harrisburg chapter rally captain Andrew Kovalic, in security decisions. (Harrisburg chapter president Maxwell Hare was recently charged with felony gang assault after brawling outside the Metropolitan Republican Club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.) But Kovalic lost his job after being doxxed by antifascists ahead of the rally; he did not respond to multiple requests for comment and appears not to have attended on Saturday.

The security chat also included Alan Swinney, a Proud Boy and veteran of violent protests around the country, who advised against bringing guns. “I don’t carry because I know ill kill one of them if I do. There’s no need for that,” Swinney wrote. “We’re just there to beat the hell out of them till the cops think they’ve had enough,” he added. Rehl and Delcampo, who also invited a Philadelphia police officer into the event’s private planning group, affirmed that attendees would have support from law enforcement. “Philly pd is pretty agressive [sic] with antifa,” Delcampo wrote. “They dont take much shit from them.” Rehl agreed: “Yeah, they hate antifa.” Delcampo, Rehl, and Swinney did not return requests for comment.

The ragged few who did show up on Saturday were protected by swarms of police. Early in the day, as I unsuccessfully tried to interview Delcampo and Rehl, I watched as a man running security for their event pulled up his sleeve and showed a bemused-looking cop his “Blue Lives Matter” bracelet. “I wear this for a reason,” he said. (Later, he called me an “antifa reporter” and asked the police to remove me, which they did.)

As the day wore on and right wingers filtered out of the rally—their attention apparently not having been captured by the impromptu “Should Constitutionalists vote Libertarian or Republican?” debate—scuffles broke out around the edges of the counter demonstration. A handful of Proud Boys from New York, including David Kuriakose, who was also charged with riot and assault after last month’s brawl, attempted to infiltrate the antifascist crowd and were promptly bounced. Swinney, decked out in body armor (or rather, what looked like hockey pads) and a bulbous helmet, tried to get past the police line and was stopped. But after the rally ended, he was escorted away from the park and into a taxi cab by police, who cracked at least one antifascist skull as they did so.

Under-attended though it may have been, the rally was still able to take place. As Philly cops shoved protesters to the ground and mounted police drove their horses toward the crowd, Swinney, behind them, laughed. He may have fallen short of his desire to “beat the hell out of” antifascists, but here was the next best thing—watching the cops do it for him. Where do the fascists end, and where does law enforcement begin? Watching police batons rise and fall on protesters, it can be difficult to tell. According to an internal police document obtained by the transparency nonprofit Property of the People and provided to the Guardian, the FBI classified the Proud Boys an “extremist group” as of August—a designation that is hard to square with the protection afforded the Proud Boys and their ilk by police around the country. And as the writer Zoé Samudzi observed, classifying the Proud Boys as extremists represents “a crisis of ‘inclusion’ rhetorics: ‘white people do bad things, too’ is predicated on non-white violence and pathology as a norm.”

Still, there are those out there who believe that as long as the far right is small and disorganized, they are better off being ignored. The left is also small, this line of thinking goes, and it needs to build power and grow stronger, winning victories for the working class and spreading our own political vision. This is not quite the same idea that many liberals have about the far right and fascists, which is that they ought to be ignored because paying attention to them somehow imbues them with power—as if fascism derives its power from “attention” rather than a particular set of material conditions. Of course it is the duty of the anticapitalist left to confront fascists, someone sympathetic to this point of view might argue, but these particular people are clowns, LARPers, goons. Consider their DIY MAGA flags, their terrible memes, their unhinged conspiracy theorizing: they are so removed from reality as to be irrelevant. They are not really fascists, not in the proper, historical sense. Fascists are dangerous; these people are ridiculous.

True enough: the fascists (or proto-fascists, or neo-fascists, or whatever you want to call them) are ridiculous—but so too were many of their predecessors. They may have failed to assemble a mass movement this time, but it is much more difficult to argue that the conditions for a widespread fascist resurgence don’t exist. Ignore the shitposting and look to the crumbling social and economic order: the downwardly mobile “alt-right,” the militias filled with veterans of foreign wars, the suburban Blue Lives Matter adherents.

“They’re preying on alienated people, particularly young men, who feel directionless, who have a lot of hatred and anger,” Chip Sinton, an organizer with the Philadelphia Childcare Collective, told me early in the day on Saturday. “That’s not excusing it, but if you let them show up in public and let them . . . organize, connect with each other, and you don’t have anyone opposing that—the hatred that they feel, the resentment that is building within them—it’s a good way to break out and become a bigger and bigger political bloc. I’d rather them scared than curious.”

Twentieth century European Marxists like Clara Zetkin and Leon Trotsky believed that the fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s were the product of capitalism in decay; in the throes of the Great Depression following the First World War, they argued, an increasingly embattled capitalist class sought out allies in the fight against socialism and communism—a fight that the reactionary demagogues and paramilitary organizations of the era were only too happy to take up. Black radicals like Aimé Césaire expanded on this argument, identifying fascism, in both word and deed, as the direct consequence of slavery and imperialism. The germ of fascism is always already buried deep within racial capitalism itself, right alongside the values of the liberal Enlightenment. A truly robust analysis of fascism, in other words, should not be confined to those who  identify with a particular ideology (such as “national socialism”) or practice a particular kind of politics (mass movements), but should recognize fascism as the machinery by which the ruling class reaches beyond the bounds of bourgeois democracy to eliminate any threat to its power, crushing the left and all movements for working class liberation.

There are those out there who believe that as long as the far right is small and disorganized, they are better off being ignored.

“It’s important that labor stand against hate because these are the same people that want to crush unions,” Lou Agre, head of the Philadelphia Metal Trades Council, which represents shipyard workers, told me, inclining his head toward the “We the People” rally. “The history of ‘right to work’ is the history of right-wing nationalism and the Klan. These are enemies of labor. If labor doesn’t stand up, nobody’s gonna stand up for us.”

Far right activity over the last several months has demonstrated the precise nature of the threat. This summer, as leftist activists set up encampments outside ICE facilities, disrupting the deportation machine, fascists harassed, assaulted, and intimidated organizers. During election season, they harried volunteers for socialist candidates across the country. An avid Trump loyalist sent mail bombs to George Soros and Democratic Party leadership. Proud Boys and their allies have infiltrated meetings of leftist organizations, doxxed activists, and impeded their organizing work. A neo-Nazi deeply connected to the wider “alt-right” through the social network Gab, stands accused of murdering eleven Jews in a synagogue that he targeted in response to Jewish solidarity, three days after another violent racist executed two black people at a supermarket. 

Only a few dozen far-right activists ultimately showed their faces in Philadelphia on Saturday, while a hundreds of protesters showed up to confront them. But were it not for the valiant organizing of the PushBack Campaign, the “We the People” rally may have been much larger and more dangerous.

As Chip Sinton put it, “we’ve had a decade of clashes with police that are only getting more violent, the police are only rearming. This is a very scary rise in global fascism. There is no American exceptionalism here. We’re going to be safer the sooner we take the blinders off our eyes and stop thinking that scary things happen elsewhere, but in America we’re just having an exchange of ideas that sometimes gets uncivil.”