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Attacks on Trans Rights and Abortion Rights Are “Bound Together”

“Some of the wildest dreams of the far right are being realized,” says Kelly Hayes.

Demonstrators march for abortion rights for women and trans people in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 3, 2022.

Part of the Series

“The people who want to harm, subjugate and destroy us have not been deterred by warnings that their political vision is too radical, or even impossible. We cannot afford to restrict our own aspirations in the face of such enemies,” says Kelly Hayes. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes talks with author Shane Burley discuss the connection between attacks on abortion rights and the barrage of anti-trans laws that have passed in recent months.

Music by Son Monarcas and David Celeste


Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. This week, we are talking about the far right and how attacks on abortion rights and trans people fit into a larger fascist agenda. We will be hearing from my friend Shane Burley, who is a Truthout contributor, as well as the author of the books Fascism Today and Why We Fight. Shane is also a regular guest on “Movement Memos” because when it comes to right-wingers, what they’re up to, and how worried we should be about it, he is my go-to guy. In fact, Shane has fielded a lot of frantic, worried, and brooding messages from me over the past few years about whatever terrible thing just happened, or could happen, and he always seems to help me make better sense of it all. So I wanted to extend some of his wisdom to our listeners right now, because, as a person who values strategic thinking, I believe it’s important to have a solid analysis of what our enemies are doing and why, as well as what they might do next. But the MAGA years of Republicanism have made it difficult to maintain that kind of clarity, because the right has undergone multiple mass radicalization events, and that has made their attacks frenzied and unpredictable. A lot of people are overwhelmed and disoriented by the hail storm of legislative and physical violence we are experiencing. So we are going to zoom out today, with some help from Shane, and take a look at the board. We are going to talk about what’s going on with the right, how their attacks on various fronts connect, and how we should position ourselves strategically moving forward.

First, I wanted to start with what’s different about this moment, because, when you highlight anything heinous that the Republicans are doing, a lot of people will rightfully point out that the Republicans, like the United States government, have a stable tradition of being heinous. As for voter suppression, attacks on reproductive rights, attacks on trans people — none of these things are new, and yet, we are operating on a different political terrain today than we were only a decade ago. In the book The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton wrote that fascism involved “a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites.” In the United States, that “uneasy” alliance has gotten a bit easier in recent years, as the Republican establishment has embraced a fuller and more outwardly visible level of radicalization. As Shane explains, embracing the right’s current trajectory of radicalization has become essential to the electoral success of most Republican candidates.

Shane Burley: I think what defined the establishment right was the coalition, the [William F. Buckley]ian coalition created around National Review and the conservative movement of the middle of the [20th] century, basically based around three principles: hawkish foreign policy, free market economics, and a tentatively Christian-aligned social conservatism, those three pillars of it. And those directly in correlation to business interests and capital itself. So there’s this alliance between the businesses, particularly in defense, and the military establishment, and support for these right-wing policies. And that created this Brooks Brothers suit, conservative movement that vibed for the “white working class” with different calls to social conservatism or other kinds of down home wisdom. But they always were pretty removed from it. They’re not actually working-class Kansas folks in the Senate.

And what changed with Trump and what changed with national populism around the world was a shift to bring in what was a more far right populous movement into actual policy-making positions. And that’s what Donald Trump’s innovation has been through the GOP, is to make that the avenue by which you need to win primary elections. And so you end up defining what the GOP actually is in these regions. So it pushed the GOP much further to the right. They have to be, because Trump set a new standard. And so that helped to merge those sorts of things. And so now the kinds of conspiracy theories and stuff that was the hallmark, it’s what defined the far right and fascist movements. They were built on this disconnect from the world.

It wasn’t just ideologically. It was also built on a fundamentally different understanding of how the world works. That is now the common language that the GOP has to speak to be able to bring people in. And so, while, for example, you’re not going to see Richard Spencer winning election to Congress anytime soon, you are going to see some of the key principles of those ideas now make their way into the very base of the GOP platform. So for example, incredibly right-wing positions on immigration, almost open racialist positions are now what have to be said to be able to win GOP primaries in a lot of cases. And so that is actually what’s going to end up driving that policy. I think looking at “election integrity,” trying to undermine elections is another now tacit part of the GOP, one that they’re open about enforcing in the coming years as they look to the secretaries of state and other people that I think will intervene on elections.

So all of those have reshaped the GOP, which was always a threatening party. It was always a party that was attacking the environment, that was attacking women’s rights, and basically everything else. But now they’re able to do it without any restrictions, to be able to do it in some of the most far reaching ways possible. Those have all been brought into part of the coalition.

KH: We are experiencing a moment of extremity, where a number of right-wing goals that, not so long ago, would have been characterized as unachievable, or even unthinkable, are coming to fruition. The pending fall of Roe is one example. The recent felony ban on trans affirming health care in Alabama is another. But I want people to keep in mind that, for most of the 1970’s, evangelical Christians were not terribly concerned about abortion. Years went by, after Roe v. Wade was decided, before the issue of abortion caught on with the massive voting bloc that would ultimately treat it as a litmus test for all elections.

What initially sparked the outrage of evangelical leaders, such that they took up the banner of Republican politics, was the end of segregation. Religious, all-white schools were losing their tax-exempt status over refusing to integrate. But racism was a less palatable rallying cry than rhetoric about defending “unborn lives,” so the grassroots evangelical movement was given a different moral narrative. I think that’s important, because we have to look at how these politics are opportunistic, and how Republicans can shift their targeting, narratively, while continuing to attack marginalized people on all fronts.

Early attacks on abortion access, such as the Hyde Amendment, disproportionately impacted Black and brown people seeking abortions. By targeting the ability of impoverished people to access abortion care, Republicans exploited divisions within the feminist movement. As the authors of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice wrote in 2004:

It was a divisive and watershed moment for the pro-choice movement. It could have confronted the white supremacy of the Right’s agenda and its own internal racism, had it made overturning Hyde and fighting for public funding a priority. By not doing so, it seemed to women of color that the pro-choice movement was not concerned with their rights.

So I want us to think about the parallels to this moment, and who is allowing their indignation about their own bodily autonomy to become divided, in their own minds, from the rights and autonomy of people who they might be inclined to leave behind. Because that is the kind of thinking and compromise that helped deliver us to this moment.

Republicans, in the 1980’s, also leveraged a moral panic about so-called “crack babies” in order to criminalize Black women for drug use during pregnancy. As Dorothy Roberts told me on the show a few weeks ago, “This strategy of making fetal protection more important than the lives and freedom of women and other pregnant people began with the prosecutions of Black women, who were pregnant and using drugs.”

I also want to note that conservatives were not hindered by admonitions that their political vision was unrealistic, or that their goals for transforming society were too big. They initiated a multi-layered, decades-long plan to reclaim the social dynamics of a more oppressive era — and at present, they are succeeding.

So how did they do it? Professor Randall Balmer has called the idea that conservative Christian evangelicals were galvanized as an electoral coalition by Roe v. Wade, “One of the most durable myths in recent history.” In his 2014 article, The Real Origins of the Religious Right, Balmer outlined the influence of Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist who helped orchestrate the mobilization of evangelicals around abortion, after testing out a number of other issues as possible catalysts for evangelical voters. In the mid-70’s, Weyrich wrote, “The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition.” Weyrich insisted that, “When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.” He also stated that, “If the moral majority acts, results could well exceed our wildest dreams.” In 1977, Weyrich and Robert Grant co-founded Christian Voice, which claimed 100,000 members by 1980. Two years later, Weyrich and Jerry Falwell founded the political action group Moral Majority — which played a key role in Republican presidential victories in the U.S. in the 1980s.

After decades of schemes and attacks, some of the wildest dreams of the far right are being realized, from the fall of Roe to the rigging of the electoral system and the Supreme Court, and more. We are also seeing new legislative objectives take shape, because all of this radical energy thrives on a continued crusade and an ongoing perception of crisis.

SB: I think the attacks on abortion are actually part and parcel for other right-wing attacks that we’re seeing now. The right has basically been successful in their strategy against abortion. They had a long game, generational strategy to fight back against abortion rights by focusing on the courts, and in combination with local legislation, regional projects, and things like that. And in doing so, they’ve been successful, which is owing partially to why the pivot to anti-trans attacks that are happening so heavily is abortion really drummed up fear in their base. It helped them raise money. It helped them build up a lot of momentum. Without that being the pressing crisis that they build on, they have to build up a new infrastructure.

And that’s why I think that the anti-trans assaults that we’re seeing, and just absolute war declared on trans folks, is in direct correlation to their successes in abortion. I think one has directly led to the other. And that is also a part and parcel of the center or mainstream right lingering more closely to the far right, is that those cultural issues have aligned so much and so completely that there’s not really the barrier at all between institutional right-wing forces, particularly around their ideas about trans folks and abortion and the far right.

I interviewed Kat Green from the Abortion Access Front. She said something that was interesting about this, that basically the attack on Roe is a mass incarceration event. Meaning that right now we have enforced criminalization on abortion in a lot of cases, but that has ramped up in the last year with the anticipation of the overturning of Roe.

There’s measures that are coming to affect people who are traveling across state lines to do abortions. Now, it’s important, I think, to note that abortion isn’t accessible for a lot of people right now. So a lot of the support infrastructure that exists to help people is to actually do what they’re going to have to do now, which is to cross state lines to places where abortion is more accessible. So a lot of abortions, for example, in later term are only available in a few places around the country. So people do already have to travel around the country in a lot of situations. And so a lot of people have to leave the state they’re in where there may be only a few abortion clinics, or they might have really onerous restrictions. So those things already exist. And we have organizations that support people in that, Midwest Access Coalition, various abortion funds. These things help support people, will book transportation, and hotels, and stuff, so they can travel for those abortions.

But what happens when laws get put in place that start to potentially criminalize those organizations for doing that, for saying that they’re actually aiding and abetting in crimes for crossing state lines to have abortion. Now, it’s unclear how they could even enforce these sorts of things, but again, just because it’s unclear because we can’t see it now doesn’t mean that criminalization can’t happen. Criminalization happens all the time in ways that are unanticipated, in ways that any legal scholar would say are absurd. There’s all kinds of prosecutions that have taken place, and we’ve seen dozens of them around supposedly self-managed abortion.

So I think part of the problem here is that further criminalization, not just attacks abortion rights, but it attacks the entire infrastructure around it. It creates a fear around really basic medical care. And it also just creates a fear around pregnancy, this idea that miscarriages themselves could be labeled abortions. And because the right has banked so much of their street cred on attacking abortion, there’s no reason to think that they won’t just keep escalating the attacks past the destruction of Roe, that they won’t keep increasing these criminalization, that they won’t try and go after state borders.

KH: I am grateful for Kat Green’s description of the end of Roe as a mass incarceration event. Because we are talking about the mass criminalization of pregnant people, and it is deeply important that this moment be understood in those terms. In general, I am not hearing nearly enough discussion of the prison-industrial complex, mass surveillance or the role of police and vigilantes in what’s coming, or what’s happening, and I think that’s because a lot of people who have not experienced criminalization have a hard time seeing the fate of their own rights as tied with those of criminalized people. There are people and places that most of us have been conditioned not to think or worry about, but none of us can afford to indulge that conditioning any longer.

The heightened political energy around abortion right now has also raised fears about attacks on abortion clinics and abortion workers. Those fears are well founded. On New Year’s Eve of last year, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Knoxville burned down in an arson attack. In February 2022, a man in Ohio pled guilty to threatening to kill a clinic patient and to bomb the clinic where she was seeking care. An abortion clinic that was set to open next month in Wyoming was also the target of an arson attack in May. Attacks on abortion clinics have a long history on the right. According to a study in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, “From 1977 to 1988, an epidemic of antiabortion violence took place in the United States, involving 110 cases of arson, firebombing, or bombing. The epidemic peaked in 1984, when there were 29 attacks.” While the level of violence directed at clinics and workers decreased after 1988, the anti-abortion movement’s culture of violence remained continuous. According to The New York Times, at least 11 people have been killed in attacks on abortion clinics since 1993. Violence against clinics hit a record high in 2018, as states passed a swath of near-total abortion bans and the radical energy of Trumpism propelled violent action. According to The National Abortion Federation’s 2020 report, incidents of assault and battery outside clinics increased 125% compared to 2019. Death threats against abortion providers more than doubled in that same year.

SB: Anytime you have increased attention on abortion, then you’re going to have increased violence against abortion clinics and clinic providers. And that’s why groups like the Abortion Access Front, which is really great, works in collaboration with safety teams at local clinics to do monitoring, like anti-fascist researchers do on the far right, but with specifically abortion folks. That is only increasing, the dangers are only increasing, which means that the protection of providers, and women, and people experiencing pregnancy as they go in to receive care has to be a priority. Just as any insurgent right-wing period, you have to think of defense, because it always leads to violence. The irony is always that some of the conventional wisdom is that when a movement is in retreat, that’s when you see impulsive acts of violence.

I write about this all the time. A lot of times the white nationalist movement will grow and then contract. And that contraction point is a period of violence. But growth in establishment in some parts of the rights are also periods of violence. So for example, when the militia movement grows and stabilizes, it actually engages in more acts of violence. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in parts of the abortion movement. Anytime it’s in the news, anytime those things happen, the protests emerge. And when Roe is vulnerable, the anti-abortion movement also sees that this is the time in which they want to topple it over. So they increase pressure, which then has the effect of increasing the Army of God, and other bombers, and things that to threaten clinics. So clinics are under risk right now. And part of what people need to think about when thinking about supporting abortion access, obviously you need to support abortion funds, and do fundraisers, money is really important. But also clinic defense is important.

KH: And in thinking about safety, we also have to understand the extremity of the attacks being leveled at trans people right now. Because what we are talking about here is nothing less than an all out war on the right of trans people to exist, and it’s not about to let up, because this assault is profoundly important to the Republicans’ next act. We saw some of that war-making in the aftermath of the tragic shooting at Robb Elementary, in Texas, when conservatives, including Congressman Paul Gosar, spread a hoax on social media claiming that the shooter who killed 19 students and two teachers, and wounded seventeen other people, was a trans person. The hoax is still circulating online, despite having been quickly debunked, and at least one trans young person in Texas was attacked by people who repeated the hoax during their attack.

SB: The attack on trans people is foundational to their politics. It’s a foundational piece because they have a model of enemies entering a previously pure space. Trans folks do not conform to what they think rigid gender standards are and therefore are threatening. And they can only understand that as a pernicious malevolence. So trans folks are automatically characterized in these as being predators. That’s the longstanding trope, that they’re doing things to people, that trans-ness itself is almost viral, that it infects communities, that it’s offensive, that it’s almost carnivorous. And so it makes sense that they would automatically assume that acts of violence emerge from trans bodies because they believe them to be so deviant. And this is so foundational to the ways in which trans health care is being attacked as a manifestation of that destructive potential of trans-ness.

It’s also, I think, important to think intersectionally about the way that this has worked. One of the things that creates coherence in their transphobic narratives is conspiracy theories that have a lot of antisemitic features to it: people like George Soros are coordinating trans folks, that they’re being affected by some cabal elite, whether or not it’s satanic pedophiles in the QAnon, or something less arcane. It’s also tied, like we said, directly to the attacks on abortion rights. It’s tied directly to the fears around critical race theory, whatever they mean that to mean. All these things end up having a relationship to one another. And so I think it’s also important to consider the shooting that happened in Buffalo, and then this school shooting happening right afterwards, and how those things exist on the same continuum.

The shooting in Buffalo is filled with the America’s anti-Blackness and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that motivate it. And then the ascription of the supposed trans-ness of the Texas shooter plays on that same continuum. We’re talking about the same process. And I feel that feels overwhelming to people, but it also should actually feel empowering because we have a really clear understanding of how it works. And it binds us together. Our experiences are bound together because we understand that the attacks on one community is an attack on another as well.

KH: Something else that has been on many of our minds this past week is how local police outside of Robb Elementary not only refused to rescue students, who were locked in a classroom with a mass shooter, but also brutalized parents who were pleading with them to take action. I know people have been inundated with painful material on this topic, but I don’t think you can talk about fascism without talking about the police, and this situation is too pertinent to avoid discussing.

We have seen disturbing video footage and heard stories about a mother being handcuffed, and ultimately getting free of police and jumping over a fence, in order to enter the school and rescue her children herself. We have heard about parents being pepper sprayed and seen footage of police blaming frightened parents for their own inaction. For many people, this has all been very shocking, and even for those of us who expect the worst from police, it is beyond enraging to take in the details of how those students and parents suffered. But I think it’s very important that we not allow the media to exceptionalize the actions of these police, as though they are inconsistent with what we already know and understand about cops, because they are not. I recognize, for example, that it is astonishing to most people that a police officer would not put the lives of entire classrooms full of children ahead of their own, but for people who have experience dealing with cop culture, it’s really not that surprising. There are no lives more valuable to police than police lives. They do not see themselves as being duty-bound to risk their lives for the sake of everyday people, nor does the law require that of them. Police believe they are more important than everyday people, as evidenced by the fact that people are routinely arrested simply for so-called “contempt of cop” offenses — meaning they were insufficiently deferretial to a police officer. Think about that for a moment. Police believe they should be able to throw us in jail, at will, for having an attitude, or saying anything that offends them, and society allows it. Cops believe they exist on a different hierarchical plain than the rest of us. The contempt police displayed at being questioned after the Texas shooting, their steady stream of deceit, and their astonishment at having to account for their actions — all of that is typical of policing. Shane also had some thoughts about what those events should reinforce to us about police, who are a powerful fascistic force.

SB: I think it acts as a reminder that police are not a neutral body of law enforcement. Folks that are critical of police, police abolitionists often have gotten this retort of like, “Well, how would you keep people safe? Are you opposed to keeping people safe? Are you opposed to, I don’t know, upholding order?” And one of the problems is that the police have an agenda of their own. They have an organizational structure of their own. They’re ideologically separate in a lot of ways from other forces. They have interests of their own. And so it’s not just de facto those who protect communities are policing it. That’s not one in the same. The police are a very distinct group and they operate in a very distinct way. And so I think acknowledging that actually gives us a good opportunity to think about alternatives and to think about the place of the police in society.

And again, the role of police is maintaining property and maintaining the hierarchies that exist in society. And so people are really shocked by the police refusing to enter the building or take on the shooter. But the reality is that is generally the structure of policing. And this is part of why, when I think people think about fighting the right, this conflict ended up taking place between those that take an antifascist approach and those that take an anti-extremist approach, because we don’t believe that the far right actually can fundamentally be undone with the systems of the police, because it’s too intertwined with the ideological and in some ways practical systems of the far right itself. And so we can’t simply try and batter down the threat of the far right with something that helped to inculcate that culture in the first place.

One thing, thinking back to abortion rights that Kat Green talked about at the Abortion Access Front is that most of these clinics can’t actually depend on the police to protect them. That’s not a stable relationship that they have. And instead we have to find outside organizations, and methods, and things like that. And I would actually add to that, that in pretty much every marginalized situation, the police are not a stable body of protection. I can’t think of a situation in which the police are always going to be a reliable source of protection. And so we have to think, in a way, in crisis terms of how do we build vibrant communities that are able to support themselves? And defending communities is just a piece of that. And that also means defending them from the offenses of the police. And it means creating alternatives to that so that we have someone we can finally count on.

KH: We have to be aware of the ways that this tragedy will be used to strengthen the police state. We have already seen Democratic operative David Axelrod claim that, “The inexplicable, heart-wrenching delay in Uvalde underscores the indispensable role of police.” He will not be alone in this assessment. Democrat and Republican officials alike can be expected to offer millions of dollars in funding to police, ostensibly, to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. But if we look at all the ways the prison and police states have expanded, in response to school shootings, what do we see? We see consultants getting rich off mass shooting drills that terrorize children and potentially train up future shooters. We see police in schools who regularly arrest, abuse and level fines against students, but who are nowhere to be found during a mass shooting. We see faulty surveillance systems that have gotten people killed in the streets being marketed to schools. We cannot allow our grief and outrage to be twisted into a multi-million dollar redemption narrative for police. If we do, we already know what the outcome will be: more funding for people who are, themselves, a tremendous source of violence against children.

One thing that the actions and inaction of police in Uvalde reinforced to me was that we are going to have to be willing to defy the state in order to save each other in the disastrous times ahead. I feel like I already knew that, but seeing those parents being forcibly prevented from rescuing their children by armed cowards really crystallized things for me. In so many ways, and in so many situations, we are going to have to defy them to save each other, and we are going to have to organize with that in mind. The idea of such defiant undertakings, in a catastrophic era of floods, wildfires and mass violence, can be overwhelming, but as Shane reminded me, when it comes to the work of saving each other, we are not wholly unskilled. Even when the task at hand seems foreign or unthinkable, we may be more equipped to face it than we realize.

SB: Do you ever get surprised when you know how to do something? This happens with me all the time, where I have some challenge ahead of me. I have to fix something, or I have to do some work, and I’m intimidated by it. And I start doing it, and realize I know how to do it, and realize, “Oh, maybe I’m even good at it.” I think this is actually something we are discovering now in this crisis, that these methods of survival that we’ve had, that a lot of communities have been forced to have, has actually given us the skills to build something new. And we’re actually discovering that we can do it.

And I think, given the example you’re talking about, I think our ability to reach out against the odds and save people is something that we’re discovering now. And that maybe in a way, be the discovery of the next century of us figuring out that we actually do have the skills to do something differently. And there’s something interesting that happens when you start organizing, which is that you embed the skills of solving problems in everyone around you. You learn them, they learn them. And so as those things escalate, as they become more frequent, you’re more able to take them on. And it’s almost like it feels miraculous at the time because you’re learning how to adapt to it. And I think that’s actually what’s happening in communities around the world.

You know this. I come on here, and we talk about the end of the world, and I try and have an optimistic spin on it. And it’s always a stretch because it’s hard to be optimistic right now. But there is a certain immune system that we have that we’re seeing now, a defensive immune system, one where we’re seeing people rise up and defend clinics because they have to, and they’ve learned how to defend things over the last several years of assaults. So we’re learning how to build mutual aid groups because we had to, we had to learn how to feed people, or get people medical access, we had to. And so that’s only more rapidly avalanching right now. And so I feel very positive about our ability not just to fight back against police violence, but that literally replace even the impulse of having them.

KH: As Shane said, he and I do have a habit of putting a hopeful spin on the apocalypse, but I think we are also people who tend to emphasize how screwed up things are. And that’s because there is no real hope without that awareness. To imagine and build our way out of this mess, we have to be willing to see and understand it.

SB: I think that the next couple years are going to be really hard. I think that the direction the GOP has gone is to weaken the structures of representative democracy, that however dishonest as they are still allowed a Democrat, for example, to win or allowed some continuity of power to exist. And that very well could break down in the next couple of years. And I think for us, the biggest fear that that creates is just really rapid instability, and chaos, and things like that. And I think it could be that all of the things we’ve been talking about were test runs for bigger problems. They probably are test runs for bigger problems.

And so I want people to trust that we can do this and to start working on that now, which means building up mutual aid networks and organizations, working with labor unions to make sure that they have the ability to coordinate things in workplaces, whatever these institutions are, and creating confederations of people to take on really serious challenges, to be able to not just fill the gap when crisis comes, but to be the alternative to what was there first. If the crisis comes and breaks down, for example, our food system, we have the ability to replace it with one that was based on equity in the beginning, or same thing, we can go with health care access and other things. So I think we should start to think about how we build up that permanent set of skills, and coordination, and relationships so that we’re able to adapt to those sorts of things, because we have the ability to protect each other. And we may very well have to, soon.

I think just the massive growth of mutual aid groups is a really good example of this. Years ago when I used to do Food Not Bombs when I was very, very young. And I get a lot of flack for this when I say this, but we did a very poor job. It was very bad. The food was terrible, we were always late, and hungover, and we were unreliable. And with that in mind, I always had a real cynical idea about mutual aid groups. So I was like, “This can’t actually meet people’s needs because a soup kitchen for example, can do what we were doing infinitely better.” And that’s really changed in the last decade. And it’s also not been true in a lot of communities that had to do mutual aid work before, like the Black Panthers’ Survival Pending Revolution program stuff, there was examples of it done really well, but this is actually ramped up into a multitude, now.

So, for example, here in Portland, [Oregon,] we have literally dozens of mutual aid groups that do different things and coordinate with one another. I think that’s really incredible. Large-scale examples of that like Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, I think the capacity of what they’re able to do now and their ability to meet those challenges is much greater. And so I think that that is a foundational thing. I think the new wave of organized labor is really important, because organized labor, it’s not just fights in the workplace, but it has the ability to bind people together into a collaborative project. And historically they’ll do lots of sorts of things. They can coordinate health care, they can coordinate food, things like that.

So I think that’s actually incredibly important. Anti-fascist groups continuing to trying to re-understand themselves. A lot of these groups formed or grew in response to the alt-right. And now that the right is changing, they’re changing. And I think that’s really something to be really excited about. I think more than anything, there was a mass orientation to organizing of some kind, and this has happened, this has been a decade on, it was Occupy, it was Black Lives Matter, it was Standing Rock. It was a number of things that actually got people in, a whole generation of people involved in not just coming out to a demonstration, but some basics on organizing. And that makes it much easier for them to jump into it.

It makes it a more common sense solution for problem solving, like organizing is now a common sense solution for a lot of people. So we’re just more equipped than we were before. And I think people, the way they responded in 2020 to the various crises show that people not only can put things together very rapidly, but that they weren’t starting at zero in the first place, that most people actually have years of experiences now that they can build on. So they can adapt very, very quickly. So it’s almost like I feel tools were mass distributed to people, particularly in Gen Z and younger millennials. But I think it was mass distributed to people. And so we’re not in the playing field we were when we were younger. It simply is not the same world. And I think that as the crisis grows, that should not be an automatic move to despair, because it actually reveals that we are much, much more able to fight back.

KH: One concern I have regularly expressed to Shane is that the suppression of empathy in this country has benefitted the right in ways that I think will become increasingly frightening with time. We have lost a million people to COVID-19 in the U.S. alone. The fact that the system can simply hustle us past that milestone with a nothing to see here, let’s get back to normal vibe is, to me, one of the most concerning, morbid symptoms of the political moment we’re experiencing.

SB: I think you’re right. I think the right’s politics going forward, particularly around climate change and climate-related mass migration, is going to be about erasing suffering, or about not refusing to emotionally, to make themselves emotionally available to the suffering of others, because they can’t. Because that is what’s required to draw hard boundaries and lines. If you saw the suffering of people, you wouldn’t be able to build walls to keep people out, and things like that. It just wouldn’t be possible. The same thing’s true around COVID. You wouldn’t be able to distract from COVID measures if you were forced to feel people’s suffering and the loss of life. It’s also, I think that what allows them to do that is the fact it’s a self-reinforcing cycle because we don’t get the supports we need to actually live with the emotional reality of what has happened and what we’ve done. Then it burns people out.

On a day-to-day basis, I don’t know that I’m able… that I have access to those emotions anymore like I did maybe two years ago. And I think two years ago, I didn’t have access to that emotional life in general that I did five years before. I think that has been beaten out of us because we have to survive. So in a way, the right has to suppress emotionality to be able to operate their goals. And we have to suppress emotionality just to survive in the world they’ve made. And so that makes us much more willing to go along with those politics. Part of Trumpism was a revolt against empathy. It was like this revolt against soft power, the idea that society is built in negotiation, and collaboration, and things like that, and the return of strong men, hard power.

And so that has radically reshaped the conservative movement, which has therefore radically reshaped the country, which has radically reshaped us. And so obviously, I think it’s important to reclaim your emotional life. I think that’s a harder road. And I think it’s one that, again, when you engage in a politics of care, you’re forced to live out acts of empathy and the movement of your body, of building these sorts of, I don’t know, systems for health care, or food distribution, helping people in crisis. Doing that imprints psychologically.

And so I think that that regaining empathy by living that out is part of what a revolutionary movement does because a revolutionary movement lives in its metapolitics. It lives in its actual changing of people’s thinking. Hopefully you do that while you’re changing material circumstances, but I think that’s what’s going to end up being required of us. And again, I think people are used to the idea that rebellion is about committing to the emotional realities we live in and rediscovering those. And I think modern social movements, social movements in the last decade really get that, big time. I think that reclaiming empathy has been a real central piece of it.

KH: It’s also very important that we uplift the work that people are getting right, like some of the mutual aid projects that Shane mentioned. And also, that we buttress and support that work, so it can continue, thrive, and inspire new projects and new forms of social engagement. Here in Chicago, I know Chicago Community Jail Support is in need of volunteers. That project, which provides direct support to people who are released from Cook County Jail, who are often in distress, and without bus fare, a phone, or even a jacket in winter, was one of the best things to come out of 2020 in this city, so let’s be sure to support groups like them. I also recently learned that the free store in my area, that helps over 100 families a day, was running low on resources, so I did what I could to help out there, and I hope others will as well. I think we should all get acquainted with the work that’s going on around us and figure out what engaging with it looks like for us. We won’t always be a part of everything, but we can be mindful of the ways our work and well-being intersect, and we can help keep each other afloat. I know that’s possible because I really would not be here today without my community. In so many ways, living in struggle, organizing in concert with other people who are determined to do good, is so much better than living outside of it. I am not saying organizing is easy, because it’s hard, or that losing doesn’t suck, because it does, and, as activists, we lose a lot. But we also succeed, in some really important ways, just by modeling for people what justice and reciprocal care can look like. Because it’s not suffering alone that radicalizes people. Our job is to make our movements into spaces that people want to imagine themselves within. And, like Shane, I think we have that power.

SB: I am of the opinion that the only thing that gets people to really dig in to organizing is victories. I think there’s this notion that people suffering radicalizes them. And I just don’t think that’s true. I think people have to be shown that it can work. There has to be an actual example of them having the ability to take power. And I think there’s actually really good evidence about the fact that that’s why you have a cascading effect when you have movement victories and they hop between different types of movements, because people saw each other and saw that it was possible. And so I want people to see that it’s possible. I think if they only see the crisis, that’s not connected to the possible. Suffering does not equal an equally radical response. I think it has to have that channel for how it can work.

KH: So how is it going to work? There are so many avenues of work to explore, but I know we have given you all a lot to process today. So for now, I am going to ask folks to really think about connections, because it is crucial that more people start making connections between attacks on trans people, the criminalization of pregnancy, and the larger system of surveillance, criminalization, confinement and control in this country. We need to help our communities understand how all attacks on our bodily autonomy are part of a larger, fascistic agenda, and that if we want to fight that agenda, we all have to be in it together. The right holds a lot of power in this moment, but we are sitting on more power and potential than we have ever begun to tap into. I believe we saw a glimmer of that power at the start of the pandemic, when hundreds of mutual aid projects mobilized, seemingly overnight.

As we navigate this stage of the mess we’re in, I want all of us to remember that the people who want to harm, subjugate and destroy us have not been deterred by warnings that their political vision is too radical, or even impossible. We cannot afford to restrict our own aspirations in the face of such enemies. We have to continue doing the work of community building, of dreaming together, and building new social relations, and we have to be bold in our visions, ignoring anyone who claims that our standards of justice and decency are “unrealistic.” If we do those things, and we show up for each other like we mean it, I think the results could exceed our wildest dreams.

I want to thank Shane Burley for joining me today to talk about fascism, abortion, anti-trans laws and where we go from here. Shane is one of my favorite people to tackle these tough topics with, and I will forever urge you all to pick up a copy of Fascism Today, because I am telling you, the glossary alone is worth it, and it is needed in these times. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

Don’t forget to check out Shane’s books:

Further reading:


Previous episodes to revisit:

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