To call Trumpism fascist is to suggest that it demands from us a unique response. We can deploy the “fascism” moniker to Trump’s ascendance by recognizing features like selective populism, nationalism, racism, traditionalism, the deployment of Newspeak and disregard for reasoned debate. The reason we should use the term is because, taken together, these aspects of Trumpism are not well combated or contained by standard liberal appeals to reason. It is constitutive of its fascism that it demands a different sort of opposition.
Liberals cling to institutions: They begged to no avail for faithless electors, they see “evisceration” in a friendly late-night talk-show debate, they put faith in investigations and justice with regards to Russian interference and business conflicts of interest. They grasp at hypotheticals about who could have won, were things not as they in fact are. For political subjects so tied to the mythos of Reason, it is liberals who now seem deranged. Meanwhile, it is the radical left—so often tarred as irrational—who are calling upon both US and European histories of anti-fascist action to offer practical and serious responses in this political moment. For all the ink spilled about rising fascism, too little has been said about anti-fascism.
Anti-fascist, or antifa, doesn’t only delineate that which opposes fascism. It is a set of tactics and practices that have developed since the early 20th century (and the rise of fascism in Italy) as a confrontational response to fascist groups, rooted in militant left-wing and anarchist politics. As organizers from anti-fascist research and news site Antifa NYC told The Nation: “Antifa combines radical left-wing and anarchist politics, revulsion at racists, sexists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and Islamophobes, with the international anti-fascist culture of taking the streets and physically confronting the brownshirts of white supremacy, whoever they may be.” As with fascisms, not all anti-fascisms are the same, but the essential feature is that anti-fascism does not tolerate fascism; it would give it no platform for debate.
The history of anti-fascism in 20th-century Europe is largely one of fighting squads, like the international militant brigades fighting Franco in Spain, the Red Front Fighters’ League in Germany who were fighting Nazis since the party’s formation in the 1920s, the print workers who fought ultra-nationalists in Austria, and the 43 Group in England fighting Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. In every iteration these mobilizations entailed physical combat. The failure of early-20th-century fighters to keep fascist regimes at bay speaks more to the paucity of numbers than the problem of their direct confrontational tactics.
A more recent history of antifa in both Europe and the United States illustrates the success these tactics can have, particularly when it comes to expunging violent racist forces from our neighborhoods and defending vulnerable communities, while also creating networks of support that do not rely on structurally racist law enforcement for protection against racists. Anti-fascist tactics focused primarily around physical force proved effective in forcing neo-Nazi groups out of entire neighborhoods in Europe and the United States in the 1980s. Back then, as longtime organizer and member of the Industrial Workers’ World General Defense Committee (GDC) Kieran Knutson told The Nation, fascist and anti-fascist formations grew out of youth subculture scenes. Taking on and largely defeating neo-Nazi gangs, multi-racial crews of anti-racist skinheads and punks coalesced and grew into semi-formal Anti-Racist Action (ARA) chapters nationwide. “At its peak, in an era without cell phones or internet, ARA had over 100 chapters across the US and Canada,” explained Knutson, adding that students, older leftists, feminists and more joined efforts to counter a broader group of racist organizations, from the white power music scene to KKK rallies. The network faded in the 2000s, drifting in part to the anti-globalization movement, but as Knutson “the several thousand veterans of this movement are still out there—many still involved politically in anti-racist, feminist, queer, labor, education and artistic projects.”