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Bent on Revenge, the Far Right Will Rage Against Reality in the Biden Era

Trump’s most dangerous supporters now see themselves as renegades in a stolen country.

Members of the Proud Boys gather outside of Harry's Pub during a protest on December 12, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Part of the Series

“Now that Donald Trump is going to be out of the office, and the narrative is that he is out of office illegitimately, it gives them a defining cause. They now live in a stolen country, a failed state where they’re the renegade truth tellers. And that’s the kind of bonding that can last for years,” Shane Burley tells Kelly Hayes.


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 things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes.

The Trump years have been an era of cruelty, repression, and catastrophe. Today, that era will finally come to an end, and a new administration will begin. Removing Trump was one of the great moral and political imperatives of our time, and I am grateful to the everyday people who made it happen. To everyone who fought Trump, I thank you. To everyone who survived the violence he inflicted, I am so glad you made it through. But we know that hundreds of thousands of people did not survive the violence of the Trump administration, and I hope we hold their memories close in the coming days, and that we demand safety for those who are still in danger.

One of the lingering dangers we face in the wake of the Trump administration is the wrath of Trump’s violent supporters, some of whom attacked the Capitol on January 6 in a failed attempt to create a fascist, autocratic state. So what does the threat of rightwing violence look like as we transition into the Biden era? To help answer that question, I talked with my friend Shane Burley on Sunday about the future of far right violence in the U.S. and what we can do about it. Shane is a Truthout contributor, a regular guest on the show, and author of the book Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. I hope you will find our conversation as helpful as I did.

[musical interlude]

KH: Shane Burley, welcome back to the show.

Shane Burley: Thanks for having me on again.

KH: How are you doing today, friend?

SB: I’m doing good. I’m waiting for all of this to be over someday.

KH: Well, the last time you were on the show was October 30, and the episode was called “Mass Protest Is Coming and the Cops Are on Trump’s Side,” so… I guess we kind of called it.

SB: Yeah, we did and a lot of people did, which is why it’s so frustrating. All of these punchy op-eds wondering how we didn’t see it coming.

KH: Absolutely. On this show alone, we’ve had you, Sarah Kendzior and Ejeris Dixon breaking it down for folks, and I have certainly had a few things to say about the subject as well. So my first question is, how did people wind up so shocked? Because it was all out there.

SB: I remember reporters talked about this in advance. I think Robert Evans was one of them, where he was doing coverage on these far-right message boards and social media, where they’re literally saying, “We’re going to take guns and storm the Capitol.” I mean, it was so blatant and we can look at the pattern of the last four years and we can see this happening in cities throughout the country, escalating in DC specifically in the last couple of months. So, this idea that we couldn’t see it coming has to negate thousands of voices, all kinds of experience, all of antifascism as a concept, and really just think that the threat of the far right is one that’s sort of mitigated by electoralism and the conditions of the Capitol. If the Capitol itself is the center of some kind of pure democracy that can’t be actually penetrated because Trump and Trumpism is so silly and on its way out. And instead, what we need to start thinking about is what’s the long-term effect of Trump’s mass movement. Biden is going to be seen by a pretty substantial population as a totally illegitimate president that was coming in with the support of some kind of insurrectionary cabal army. That’s really frightening. One thing I think is distinct about what’s happening right now is not necessarily the ideas of the people, but the mass nature of it. We’re talking about really profound conspiracies, Stop the Steal, for example, that requires a really deep level of conspiracy thinking, but it’s happening to millions and millions of people. This is a scale we’ve never seen before. So, it’s hard to even conceptualize what it means that we watched millions and millions of people go through a mass radicalization event in 2020, and are now prepared to see the State and everything as captured by this spectacular, fantastic cabal of pedophiles or Antifa, or whoever.

KH: As of Sunday when we recorded this, 32 members of law enforcement from 15 states, including one prosecutor, had been identified as having attended the Stop the Steal rally, which culminated in a raid on the Capitol. On social media, Thomas Robertson, one of two Rocky Mount, Virginia police officers who was charged with playing a role in the Capitol riot, said “CNN and the Left are just mad because we actually attacked the government who is the problem and not some random small business. The right IN ONE DAY took the fucking U.S. Capitol. Keep poking us.”

In 2006, the FBI warned that white supremacists were working to infiltrate local police departments in the United States. Some people take issue with statements like that, given that U.S. policing is a white supremacist apparatus, so it’s kind of like saying I’ve infiltrated my apartment, but I do think we need to be able to name strategic distinctions — in terms of strategic infiltration vs. racist people who are motivated by their own individual motives and desires. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security warned that white supremacists were actively recruiting former military personnel and called it the “biggest domestic terrorism threat in the United States.” No one in government proceeded to treat it as such, but those trends were identified over a decade ago and discussed at the highest levels of government.

The violence that took place in the Capitol could not have occurred without the complicity and active participation of law enforcement, but what we are likely staring down here, in response to these events, is a new round of anti-terror legislation that will expand the surveillance state and create new modes of criminalization, just as the Patriot Act led to the targeting of the Muslim community and environmental and animal rights activists. The FBI has already been palling around with the public, asking for our help identifying Capitol raiders — which they obviously do not need. And one of the primary demands we are seeing from the public is that the Capitol raiders be referred to as terrorists, as though that will somehow transform the situation in a positive way. So what are your thoughts watching this sort of pro-criminalization free for all we’re witnessing, in spite of the fact that the police played a major role here?

SB: Yeah, so there’s a lot here. I think that the first is that I think people… I sympathize to a degree with the wanting to call this terrorism and wanting to single these people out as insurrectionaries and to hype it up simply because we’ve seen a year of hyperbolic accusations against Antifa, Black Lives Matter, of calling them terrorists, insurrectionaries and so on. So, people like the ability to throw that back and I kind of get why that feels good at the gut level.

The problem with that is, like you mentioned, anytime we create increased criminalization, it further marginalizes the marginalized, and that’s just a pattern about the inequalities of law enforcement that we are not going to get rid of through casual reforms and social progress. I mean, they’re really, deeply laid in the system. So, if you’re increasing these sort of terrorism legislation, it’s going to affect marginalized people who are victimized in the system already because of deeply laid racism and bigotries that lie at a structural level in all of law enforcement. So, looking at this as a problem that has a law enforcement solution misses the track of what the problem actually is and what actual solutions to that look like.

I think again, if we’re talking about this as the problem is the threat they have to the Capitol Building, or the threat they have to democracy, we again are missing the problem here. I wrote something else for Protean Magazine where I talked about [how] the Capitol was stormed decades ago. It was stormed during the Reagan revolution. They tore apart social safety nets, they built up border walls. I mean, the Capitol has been stolen. And as if our democracy isn’t a place that it hasn’t been constantly under threat, this march on the Capitol, for example, is not the flashpoint of the attack on democracy. It’s a flashpoint on their willingness to engage to get violence against other people. And I think the way that they see law enforcement is important for us to understand more so than the act of the Capitol.

So, I think when we’re thinking about whether or not… It’s like labeling with terrorists or terrorism legislation that’s going to give a solution, instead, looking at their actual violence against people is actually what we need to start thinking about, and law enforcement terrorism legislation is not a solution to that. Community organizations, really strong, vibrant communities that can defend themselves, that is actually the solution to it. And we can’t just keep looking for law enforcement solutions to really complicated social problems on the one hand, but also just the problems of an armed far-right. Those need interventions on every level and law enforcement is not the one that has ever proved effective in doing that.

And then on the other piece that you mentioned, I think, I was interviewing Vicky Osterweil about her book In Defense of Looting, and she brought this point up that I think is really salient, is that historically white vigilante groups like the ones who stormed the Capitol have been allowed to sort of do what they want as a method of social control, and police often either work in collaboration with them or stand down during it. And it was really more during the war on drugs that the police sort of took charge on this in as much as they had the authority to basically run a rough shot over communities of color as much as possible. They essentially took the role that the white vigilantes had before in social control; they were both the police and the social enforcers using extreme violence on communities of color. And now we’re actually seeing in a way the sort of return of white vigilantes to the mix and the police essentially either treating them with kid gloves or standing down or sometimes even participating.

And that seems really shocking to people, but actually there’s a historical continuity there, like the police in general, both because structurally the way that policing works and the people who are in policing do not deal with the far-right in a way that’s particularly effective. There are obviously times when far-right groups and fascist groups, white supremacists, white power movement specifically goes after law enforcement and the State. And so there’s not like they’re always in perfect alignment, but the reality is, is that policing without maintaining power and social control, and in white supremacists, vigilantes are essentially just the Vanguard of that. So, there is a conducive level there.

When you go into the police department, so this was seen really clearly during the mid 2020 protests in places like Portland, is that they were filled with nativist conspiracy mongering about the left-wing protestors, and that kind of internal culture, how it gives them an alignment with groups like the Proud Boys. It’s really clear when you see events happening where there’s a moderate size Proud Boy contingent and a much larger left-wing contingent, the Proud Boys come with guns and weapons, attack a bunch of leftist protestors, and then the police follow up and attack the protesters again. So, it’s such a discernible pattern that we need to expect that that kind of thing is going to happen and not rely on that law enforcement barrier as something that’s going to keep us safe necessarily.

KH: We have seen Biden joining calls for new domestic anti-terror legislation, but we are also seeing Republicans seize the moment. As Leanna First-Arai recently reported in Truthout, Republican lawmakers in five states are using the unrest at the Capitol to propel anti-protest laws, that they claim will prevent the kind of mob violence that we saw at the Capitol. But legal experts are in agreement that these laws would do nothing to curb white supremacist violence. What they would do is empower police to crack down on their targets — Black activists, immigration activists, climate justice organizers and others — and these laws would further empower prosecutors to seek draconian sentences when prosecuting protesters. So what people are really doing, when they push the idea of terrorism — an idea that’s primary function in the United States is racist fearmongering — they are aiding those Republican efforts. Because instead of having a complex discussion about what we are up against and how to end it, we are talking in very general terms that we know will be weaponized against vulnerable people.

SB: It reminds me of a bigger, complicated issue inside of organizing that I think sometimes we neglect for immediate gain; like robbing Peter to pay Paul. I had this conversation with someone recently about a housing campaign that I was involved in many, many years ago and how we were using rhetoric about empty houses; it was like anti-eviction work. And it basically used the rhetoric about empty houses, about how they become drug dens, and they drive down the neighborhood, and people pointed out, “Well, you’re kind of throwing folks struggling with addiction or folks who use drugs under the bus in your rhetoric of that.” So, what are we actually here for? Are we here just about the issue of housing or is housing part of a larger movement towards equality and justice?

So, when you’re talking about confronting white supremacists, it’s really easy to say, “Hey, let’s lock them through the FBI.” But in doing so, you’re collaborating and participating with the FBI that will also go after other social movements, that are going after communities of color. You have to say, “Do we really get a benefit from this or are we actually hurting our long term social goals?”

KH: So, in terms of what we’re up against, there are a lot of players involved. We have white supremacist militas, the Proud Boys, Trump’s otherwise unaffiliated fandom, and much more. We have seen some convergence of these forces, under Trump, which to a lot of people, just looks like one big blur of scary racism. I do think it’s important to understand some of the distinctions between these groups, particularly as we move into an era when we may not see them acting in concert as much. Can you say a bit about the different groups and types of groups that we should be concerned about?

SB: So, you have a number of contingents. You have the militia folks and folks of all the patriot organizations, these are the Oath Keepers, 3% or sometimes regional militias. And these have decades back of traditions of these kinds of far-right organizing in rural areas that have started to creep into urban areas in the Trump years. You have the Proud Boys, the actual Proud Boys organization, which has been out in really big force in a lot of these cities, and have had the street policing behavior of attacking counter protesters. That’s almost their entire reason to be there. You have what’s driving a lot of people out, which is basically conspiracy movements that have hit a kind of fever pitch in the last year, QAnon being the most upfront version. But to a degree, the anti-mask protesters have another kind of window that people who are calling into question the severity of COVID, and those people are coming out in one of the largest factions. And they’ve actually had a good year of warming themselves up to these kinds of rallies. So, Stop the Steal really comes in continuity with the anti-mask protests.

The rhetoric is certainly different, but the personalities really aren’t. And what’s been happening over the last 18 months or a year is that people have been pushing their own personal boundaries at these rallies about what should be acceptable, how much violence they are willing to do, how complicational they’re willing to be. And then, Trump is basically calling them into action. So, we’re seeing a really huge push for people to take action.

There are open white supremacist groups; people have seen them there. And high-profile organizers Baked Alaska, Nick Fuentes or some others. But also, a lot of the alt-right is staying home on this. They abandoned Trump a couple of years ago. They think that this is an FBI operation to get their people arrested and they don’t want to be a part of it. The ones that are going there are likely basically cynically just trying to recruit people to those sorts of things. But what’s happening here in general, and what I actually think is way more frightening in some ways is that these are a large mass of people who haven’t been facilitated by formal organizations and are acting in incredibly desperate ways. And that kind of flashpoint desperation is what leads to seemingly impulsive acts of violence. And that’s the kind of climate we’re starting to see.

KH: I want to talk a bit about what’s happening psychologically right now to Trump’s supporters. Because he summoned a mob to D.C., riled them up for a riot, told them they were beautiful and that he loved them, and then threw them directly under the bus. I observed some outcry and confusion among rightwing folks, after Trump denounced the people who raided the Capitol, but it seemed like all of that got swept away pretty quickly by conspiracy theories and fearmongering about Black-led protests. So where do you think Trump’s fringe supporters are at right now, in terms of how they are internalizing these events?

SB: Yeah, I think my colleague, Sarah Hightower, made a comment when I was interviewing her a couple of weeks ago about the sort of traumatization that’s happening with pieces of Trump’s base. We’re experiencing mass traumatization event based on falsehoods, based on conspiracy narratives that aren’t true, but had [they] been true would be incredibly traumatic to experience. So like QAnon, for example, or Pizzagate, those kinds of narratives, obsessively believing those sorts of things is a very upsetting experience that pushes people into a trauma state. They’re essentially giving themselves PTSD over imagined stories. And this is happening in a way that’s affecting people generationally. It’s happening in entire large swaths of the country right now that are breaking with consensus reality in any way, and doing so based on an emotional connection to Donald Trump. It’s not based on some kind of factual quid pro quo, Trump’s going to do something for them. It’s not really like that anymore.

Now it’s about emotional bonding and identity and believing something that’s sort of in revolt against rationality. And I think that that’s actually speaking to some really profound, deep needs in folks, but also speaking to years of a breakdown between common shared experiences. So, the far-right that’s out there now is less prone to ideological cohesion and more prone to just this impulsive kind of storytelling. There’s this term that I’ve seen start to get used a lot, which is “Some people are saying” a lot of times when I’m interviewing people at far-right rallies, if I interview people in crowded rallies and stuff, they’ll oftentimes tell me conspiracy stories, and they’ll just preface it with, “Well, some people are saying.” It’s sort of the conspiracy without even the narrative. There’s been such a breakdown on a cohesive understanding of the surrounding world that it really lends itself to looking towards demagoguery as a real solution to their problems.

So, that’s why I think coalescing around Donald Trump, around the false narrative of the stolen election and stuff is one that’s going to take them past the election period and give them a reason to be out there. Now that Donald Trump is going to be out of the office, and the narrative is that he is out of office illegitimately, it gives them a defining cause. They now live in a stolen country, a failed state where they’re the renegade truth tellers. And that’s the kind of bonding that can last for years.

KH: One thing that a good friend of mine said, when it became clear that a police officer had died in the Capitol raid, was that we were about to see how little the right really cares about police. Because we have seen concern for police, and respect for police, carried as a banner by Trump supporters, and while many of us realized that what they were really cheering on was anti-Black violence, and really, lynchings carried about by police, I’m not sure the police themselves have understood that. Because the support they have received has been so enthusiastic. And it’s not just symbolic. It’s material. But when we see these videos of Black people being murdered, and the videos go viral, and the cop’s Gofundme gets $100,000 in one night or whatever, those Gofundmes are never about those cops, or people thinking what they did was justified. It’s just a way for racist white people to sort of retroactively participate in a lynching. Those videos are the lynching postcards of our time, just like the ones they used to sell at gas stations as souveniers during Jim Crow.

So it’s been interesting to see the lack of concern on the right, for the officers who were attacked, because they never really cared about the police anymore than they care about the flag. People will often point out that conservatives attack Kaepernick for supposedly disrespecting the flag when white people regularly distort the American flag in all sorts of ways. But now we’re seeing points of friction, and physical violence between white supremacists and police, which is unusual, but also, not shocking, because rightwingers don’t really care about police, and police don’t hold any true allegiance to anyone outside themselves. Because, as we’ve talked about before, police don’t really see themselves as being attached to communities, so much as existing in opposition to communities, to maintain their own impunity and authority at all times. That usually puts police in alignment with white vigilantes, but in the chaos of the Capitol riot, we saw both collusion and conflict.

SB: Yeah, I think it’s worthwhile to think of the police as a class of their own, to a degree, and not having perfect alignment with other forces necessarily in all times. I think that one of the reasons that police actually make themselves vulnerable to far-right attack is that they can’t believe it. It’s almost like that allegiance will leave them open to be killed. So when, for example, you see the boogaloo killings of police officers or the… There was other militia ones that happened closer to like the Bundy standoff. It seemed like they were sort of slack-jawed about this, unable to conceptualize what to do, how to deal with it, that kind of thing. So, I think there is a reckoning probably happening in police departments about now it looks like this movement that was doing Back the Blue rallies and was literally fighting leftists in the streets in the name police are now attacking them with guns.

I doubt that it’s going to be police out for revenge. I mean, I really doubt that there’s going to be this profound change in the policing structure. I think, again, policing itself is not always… Even as a class of its own, it’s not always singular interest. And I think for example, federal investigators take on far-right groups in a much different way than local police departments do. So, I think there’s going to be a lot of disjointedness there. And I think also for example, the police officers and the staff that are actually involved in far-right movements are again also having internal clashes with feds and other things. And I think also for example, the way that the federal law enforcement is seen in the era of Biden is going to be much different too. So, I actually think there’s going to be a lot of internal clashes there. There’s going to be a lot of shaky ground for how to actually deal with far-right movements that are continuing, particularly when all evidence points that they will be increasingly violent because of the desperate situation they believe themselves to be in.

KH: While we have seen some counter protests, many of us are avoiding crowds and large events, especially with the new strain of COVID-19 spreading so rapidly, but conditions on the ground will change over the next year, and we also know that every situation is different, and that some people are going to be moved to take action before the pandemic is over, either to confront fascism, or for a host of other reasons. But in a more general sense, over the next four years, there will be antifascists and other everyday people pushing back against white supremacist organizing and white supremacist attacks. In addition to COVID safety protocols, what do those people need to know?

SB: I think that people are going to come out and counter-demonstrate these far-right rallies. And I support people doing that. I think that there is going to be… That those are dangerous situations, that people should be aware that they’re dangerous situations and should coordinate safety plans and stuff if you want to be at demonstrations at state capitals around the country. I think that particularly smaller state capitals are really vulnerable spaces; Olympia, Washington, Salem, Oregon. There have been really violent rallies recently. For example, in Olympia people have been shot. I think those are the kinds of spaces that concern me the most. I think people going in and out of those spaces that maybe look too far-right people as someone that could be an agitator of some sort, that there’s obviously, I think the issue of being kind of cornered alone. So, I don’t think that people should be going places alone.

I think the press are incredibly vulnerable right now in a way that’s uncommon. And I think being visibly a reporter is an incredibly dangerous thing at these rallies. That’s escalated dramatically in the last few months, way past what it used to be. I used to just go in the far-right rallies and no one would bother me. I would even tell them if I was reporting for like a left-leaning publication; it didn’t matter. I was just a reporter, they were fine. They might make fun of me or something, but it was totally pretty neutral. Now when I’m going, I’m getting surrounded by guys with guns. It’s a much different situation and people are being attacked pretty openly, including mainstream reporters. So, I think that’s an incredibly dangerous spot to be in right now.

And then I think, again, what feels like revenge attacks are an important thing to watch out for, because what’s happening now, is that the violence from a lot of the far-right groups, either explicitly Proud Boys or supporters in the surrounding spheres around the intersecting circles basically present all their violence as defensive. So, even when they’re obviously doing offensive violence, they seem to single out people they believe to be high profile activists for violence under the idea that that’s defending the community somehow, or at least under the branding of that; that’s how they present it. So, I think keeping an eye on people, making sure people stay safe and coordinated, particularly around the inauguration day and the days afterwards. I don’t think that the major centers are going to be where the biggest worry should be right now.

KH: Total agreement. What are you most worried about?

SB: I’m most worried about the escalated emotional space inside the far-right rallies, where they could engage in seemingly impulsive acts of violence against counter-demonstrators. I think sometimes because what people say in those spaces are so absurd and so ridiculous, we believe that they don’t believe it, and that that’s just a justification. But the reality is that they often do believe the conspiracy mongering, they actually do believe that Antifa and Black Lives Matter and Joe Biden are coordinating to murder them somehow. These kinds of beliefs, they actually do come through. I’ve been at enough of these rallies where they literally are saying that the counter-demonstrators are sacrificing children, all with dead sincerity. So, I think that that kind of emotional space at a heightened moment like the inauguration could lead to these acts of violence that they even may truly believe or defensive in some way, that they may think that they’re actually doing something to stop violence that’s about to happen, and people opening fire, people pulling guns and stuff. That kind of thing I think is really frightening.

I think targeted attacks on journalists and activists is a very real thing. To say it’s likely is to predict something. But what I’m saying is it happens at every one of these events, and it will happen that day as well. So, I think that’s something that really frightens me because we’re seeing things like pipe and baton head attacks, those leading to traumatic brain injuries, it’s happening at a really mass scale right now, there’s so many attacks. That I think is really, really frightening. So, I think that is the kind of violence that’s very interpersonal in nature that concerns me the most, as opposed to a mass terror action, which I don’t think is completely impossible, but it’s not exactly the pattern that’s as dependable from the evidence we have. We have a very dependable historical record right now of what the violence tends to look like.

KH: So what does a movement to stop the far right look like?

SB: I mean, I think in a way we have all the tools. I think I say this every time; we have the tools. I think we know how to organize people, and we know how to do it in a really mass and semi spontaneous way. I don’t mean totally spontaneous; organizing is not spontaneous, but the ability to react quickly and to pick up the tools when they’re needed. We had a lot of this happen in 2020. We had mutual aid organize a forum in response to the coronavirus. Then we had the BLM protest at a scale, again, also unprecedented. So in a way, we actually had our own mass radicalization event that happened across the country, and required the creation of really profound infrastructure. And also having intersectional analysis about white supremacy, and in a way figuring out how to defend ourselves from these vigilante groups that were hitting people all around the country.

And then, you had things like forest fires and stuff where people also had to come together and figure these solutions out. And then, the violence around the election. So, I think actually there has been a forced training that has happened on organizing. I think what’s going to be required is one, the people that came out in response to Trump in the first place have to continue to come out. I actually am sort of optimistic about that because no one seems to believe that Biden is going to solve [our problems] anyway, no way at all. I have not seen that anywhere, but there’s going to have to be a consistent response. I mean, the reality is, is that when the far-right comes out enough times, a large movement usually does form to stop them. But when they start to peter out or there’s some signal that they’re in decline, people tend to stay at home.

But the only thing that actually forces that off the edge is to keep coming out, to keep making it impossible for them to organize. That is what creates the long term pattern there. And I think again, what’s going to be the most important thing is that people create alliances, they create coalitions, they work together. They don’t just focus on one issue, but they have an ability to coordinate all of these simultaneously, so that when the far-right comes out, you have a giant army of people that can confront it, and those people stay involved in organizing outside of that as well.

KH: I see a lot of potential in what’s been stirred in the last year, and I am hopeful, but I do think the left has a long way to go, in terms of being willing to work with who’s there. I know I often talk about prison organizing, but that’s really because those organizers have shown us what it looks like to understand that your survival and your experience of the world are on the line, and to organize alongside people you would never otherwise have anything to do with, because you really understand that severity. I think that’s what a lot of leftists and liberals did not have going for them during the Trump administration, and I think it hampered us in real ways. If not for COVID-19, I am not sure we would be in a state of transition right now at all. And I really feel like most people in this country will never appreciate how close we came to becoming a fascist autocracy, because their faith in institutions is going to be reaffirmed by this transition. So I hope we can counter that, and I think to some extent, the Biden administration will counter that, by letting people down spectacularly in the coming months, but disillusionment obviously doesn’t generate constructive action, all by itself. So I hope we will be ready to do the kind of work you’re describing, of building those coalitions, of talking to people, not people who hate us or don’t respect our humanity, but people who we aren’t in perfect alignment with, who we might not otherwise connect with. Because leftists are really good at talking about how the whole world is at stake, and less skilled at acting like the whole world is at stake. And all of the people whose suffering and abuse we raged against under Trump — all of those people are still in danger, both from the government, which was never on their side, and from Trump’s minions, who are out for revenge.

But circling back to the moment we are in, the new variant of COVID-19 that is tearing through the UK, strain B117, is 40 to 80% more transmissible than the strains that have brought us to our knees over the last year. So we’re talking about a deteriorating situation right now, both in terms of escalating mass death and a whole lot of displacement looming. How do you think these disasters will impact our political struggle against the far right?

SB: I think the experience of mourning and the experience of the loss of 2020 has changed the equations for a lot of people. And I think that there’s a certain sense of immediacy about confronting what’s happening. But, I think it’s also bound us together in really complex ways. I may be hopelessly optimistic about this, but I actually do think that these experiences have created a sense of bonding about what it means to survive and confront the problems that are happening, and that we have to do it together.

So, I’m hoping that particularly when coming out of what hopefully will be mass vaccination and everything, coming out of that, the hope is that this is going to create a really bonded sense of community coming in the spring and the summer so that we actually have the capacity to do this, and that there feels like that drive is really strong inside of us to do it. I think there’s also a real hunger for returning to community, that we feel like we may have been lost, or we may have been lapsed from because of those barriers. So, I think that’s really, really critical as we come into the spring and summer that we’re able to launch ourselves into a real sense of shared experience.

KH: I hope so and I strongly believe in that possibility. But as someone who’s done a lot of organizing around grief work and memorialization during the COVID crisis, I will say that I think that collective grief is still a missing piece for a lot of people, and that I don’t think we are going to get to the place you’re describing until we build more connection around that. I think there’s a lot of grief work and memorializing that has not happened, in part because people tend to recoil, because these things are painful, and because people don’t have their bearings. People in the U.S. have been living through a nationwide mass casualty situation for almost a year now. And during that time, we were also experiencing the drama of a presidential race, including a Democratic primary that set a lot of people against each other — quite pointlessly, I will say, as someone who was engaged in those exchanges. And with so much focus on Trump’s attacks on the people and the environment, and his COVID response, which was really an extended act of mass murder, I think some people have forgotten how to take a deep breath. Some days I am one of those people.

But I will say that when I do see people who are processing grief in collectivity, who are holding memorial services, not just for one person, but for the community, these are people who tend to be involved in organizing, in some form or another. Whether they organize with a mutual aid collective, or through a membership organization, or through their church, people who are already concerning themselves with the survival and well being of other people, those are the people who I see building bonds around what’s happened and potentially building the solidarity we will need to collectively heal, and translate some of that energy into action against the far right and against neoliberalism, in the name of what we really need, which is a more life-giving society.

And I do just want to remind people, as we come toward the end here, that collective grief is antifascist. Acknowledging the severity of what we have lost, and why we have lost it, naming the mass sacrifice of disabled people and Black and Brown people, and imprisoned people, these are things that have to happen, and they are acts of resistance. Because when we grieve together, we reclaim the value of our humanity, and if you’re not sure what to do in this moment, and you want to make a statement against fascism, but do not want to tangle with racists, I highly recommend carrying out some sort of small action, whether it’s wheat pasting or creating a shrine, or a small group vigil with your pod, that honors those we have lost. Because collective memory is a battlefield, and any ground we cede will be seized by the far right.

SB: I think building on what you’ve just said, surviving is a political act, and we have to get that together. I mean, one of the realities is that there are competing visions for what a social space will look like, what does our society look like. And coming through mass trauma, and what we’ve done to survive in that period of mass trauma is about forging horizontal connections and building community, and building a strong sense of mutual aid and solidarity. So doing that, doing it together is part of building that in the future. So, it is an act of defiance and one that’s really incredibly important, not just for the social reproduction of social movements, but just of redefining our social reality, and one that’s against the cruelty that we’re seeing in the Trump movement.

KH: Well, thank you for that, and thank you so much for joining us today, Shane. I always love our conversations.

SB: I’m happy to be here.

KH: 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
Further reading:

Far Right Rallies at Capitols Across U.S. Show D.C. Mob Was Not an Isolated Incident by Shane Burley

Deaths at the Capitol, a pro-Trump, far-right mob — and months of red flags by Shane Burley

40 Ways to Fight Fascists by Spencer Sunshine