Fascism is an explosive word with different connotations to different people. That is why Truthout has been selecting books that shed light on expert perspectives on the political implications of fascism in the era of Trump. Shane Burley sheds further light on how the ideology has evolved through various groups in the United States and their common and different threats to democracy.
Mark Karlin: What is your response to people who call Donald Trump a fascist?
Shane Burley: I think it misses the point of both the word and of the Trump presidency. If we are going to get specific, Trump seems to be of a more “right populist” bent rather than open fascism. There are certainly fascist qualities to Trump: the strongman presentation, violent militarism, race-baiting and nativism, open misogyny. But I define fascism since the 21st century as a mix of essentialized identity, the belief in human inequality, and the resurrection of violent mythologies. What this means really is that a fascist ideology is self-aware of its politics, it argues openly for race hatred and social oppression, and Trump simply does not commit fully to white nationalism. Instead, we should look at what Trump represents in the American public and whether or not he creates a situation where those who do commit fully to the white nationalist program are able to take power. That is a different conversation altogether, and Trump needs to be resisted not because he fits all the boxes on a fascist checklist perfectly, but because he enacts a monstrous policy agenda and empowers vigilante racist violence.
What is the relationship of misogyny to the right-wing followers of Trump?
Misogyny is a deep part of the motivating impulses of the right, both of the reactionary segment of the GOP that went for Trump and of the far-right. Part of the appeal of Trump was that he gave leeway to the id of a male demographic that feels slighted by anti-oppression movements. The anti-feminist backlash is a huge part of this, especially given an era where men are seeing the paradigm of their interpersonal power shift. It is a lot easier to turn towards a reactionary element that validates their baser instincts rather than the side that challenges them to grow.
Hatred of women, of femininity broadly, has been mobilized viscerally by the Trumpian movement. It is distrustful of women, especially those raising their voices about sexual assault, and instead he presents himself as the archetype of “toxic masculinity”: a man who indulges the worst interpretation of masculinity. In this way impulsive violence, control over women, and the dominance of men in the social sphere has created a sense of tribal unity in the Trumpian circle, and this internal culture helped to mobilize his base in a way that few beltway pundits could have predicted.
The “alt-right,” including the “manosphere” and other online movements that fused starting in 2015, had misogyny as a key component of their ideological flavor. They have perception that women, and all the qualities they erroneously ascribed to women, are bringing down the Western Civilization that their white maleness built. Just as they throw blanket claims of guilt at Jews, they often will simply line up qualities they despise and ascribe them to women. Consumerism, materialism, liberalism, etc., are all seen as essentially feminine, part of the destruction of society that evolved from the extension of rights to women. What leads these men to this movement is variable, but their own outsider nature should not be ignored, and their inability to connect with women on a personal level has led to many joining movements like the men’s rights movement. As these movements coalesced, they helped to forge a political identity and a way of interpreting politics that were suspicious of women and celebrated those that openly rebuked them. Trump is the perfect figure for this perspective.
What is your definition of “alt-right”?
To define the “alt-right” we should go directly to the “alt-right” itself. What has been so irritating about so many media outlets getting the politics of the “alt-right” so incorrect is that the major figures of the “alt-right,” such as Richard Spencer, have been prolific in explaining themselves and their ideas.
The “alt-right” existed for a few years before its major surge in 2015. Much of the attention around the “alt-right” focused on message boards like 4Chan, memes and their troll behavior, but all of this is less than defining. The years that came before, when the hardcore “alt-right” white nationalist believers were forming their ideology, gives us a window into exactly who they are. From their mouths, in publications like the original AlternativeRight.com, the first “alt-right” podcast Vanguard Radio, or the early “alt-right” publishers like Counter-Currents or Arktos, the “alt-right” is both about identity and inequality. First, identity is something that a person does not choose, but instead chooses them in a sense. This primarily means race, but also includes gender and other qualities. They believe that these elements are bio-spiritually what define us, and that we need to return to very rigid notions of determinism, tribal ingroup and outgroup thinking, and barriers between groups. Second, the belief that human beings are not created equal, that inequality is sacred and profoundly human. Those two qualities together define the “alt-right,” manifesting in the US as a pseudo-academic form of white nationalism whose culture just happened to be developed in a vicious online cauldron.
A lot of what is often referred to as the “alt-right” is better called the “alt-light.” Radical right provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern, Gavin McInnes, Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich, Ann Coulter and others, often get within proximity to the white nationalists of the “alt-right.” They may enjoy the trolling culture, they may mainstream their positions, they even might prop up some of their most appalling arguments, but they also do not commit to the ideology in an open and honest way…. The “alt-right,” on the flip side, used them as a gateway to a larger conservative audience, just as white nationalists used figures like Pat Buchanan and the paleoconservative movement to mainstream their views in the 1980s and 1990s.
Today, the “alt-right” has been alienated from its more moderate counterparts and has reverted to what it always was. The best line to describe the “alt-right” comes from Greg Johnson, the founder of the neo-fascist Counter-Currents Publishing. “The “alt-right” means white nationalism, or it means nothing.”
Why do you recommend a mass anti-fascist movement?
The mass anti-fascist approach comes from a few assumptions that I think have proven true over time. First, a violent threat like white nationalism appears in a myriad of ways, in a host of different venues, and makes entry into a variety of cultural spheres. At the same time, it can grow quickly and decisively without opposition. So, when movements like the “alt-right,” patriot militias, and those that support them swell, it requires a mass force of people to stop them. This means that it cannot just be small contingents, but everyone in a community, coming together to shut down their advance.
It may sound redundant, but the only thing that stops fascist movements is stopping them. This means stopping the functions of their organizing, their public events, their ability to propagandize, their capacity to organize violence. This requires catalyzing events and the very organized response of huge swaths of people, all finding a connection to the issue from their own unique backgrounds.
Second, movements like antifascism are a gateway to organizing broadly, a way of communities taking control back directly. The act of organizing with your neighbors and community members, of going outside your normal code of life and the channels offered by the state, and then winning gives a window to a different way of organizing life. It is empowerment made pure, and that is something that can only become truly revolutionary when it is brought to scale.
You state in the book that “the modern fascist project has always been centered on race.” How so?
As I define the “alt-right,” and fascism broadly, I use language to link up very different movements that all share an essential core. You can have fascist movements that do not focus heavily on race (they could focus more on gender or body type, but for most of history, and in modern America, race is the center. Race fuels the movements just as it fueled the expansive colonialism of Western capitalism, the growth of systemic inequality, and the fragmentation of the working class. White supremacy has always been a tool to break up class solidarity and to redirect class struggle against other workers and oppressed people, and therefore the thinking of fascist radicals returns to race. The American mythology was founded on the idea that some races were biologically and spiritually inferior to others. That idea left the American consciousness while it remained in its institution and subconscious, and fascists simply intend to make it a primary motivator once again. In eras where anti-racist struggles take place, such as the battle over immigration or against police brutality with Black Lives Matter, fascist radicals will simply stoke the racist subconscious of white America to get them to turn toward nationalism rather than collective liberation.
What is the role of revolutionary feminism in resistance?
There is no antifascism without a revolutionary feminist movement as a part of the analysis and coalition. Patriarchy is an implicit part of far-right movements that attempt to use a mythology about the essential roles of men and women to reinstate traditionalist interpretations of gender roles and servitude. This belief in the centrality of male power creates a false narrative for the male-identified working class, stripping them of actual solidarity with promises of privilege. Maleness is one of those essential identities, like whiteness, which the fascist movement is built around, and if the underlying systems of structural patriarchy are not addressed, they will continue to create insurgent male supremacist movements to reject progress. The reality is that only a radical revolutionary feminism can be up to this task, not just countering the violent reactionary men that make up the fascist core, but also the underlying values, systems and realities that birthed them. Fascism just makes implicit inequality explicit, and so revolutionary feminism goes both after the vanguardist misogyny as well as the systems that continue to oppress women and gender nonconforming people and divide the revolutionary multitude.
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