“Forces that have been awakened are not ones that can be tucked away. And it will be a struggle, perhaps, for the rest of our lives,” says Tal Lavin, author of Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Lavin and host Kelly Hayes talk about how right-wingers get radicalized, liberal and left-wing complicity, and the avoidance of despair.
Music by Son Monarcas and Pulsed
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 fascism, how right-wingers get radicalized, and what it means to actively oppose fascism in these times. The Biden administration has belatedly ramped up its rhetoric against the right, describing MAGA Republicans as “semi-fascist” and raising the alarm about attacks on the electoral system. Some people have applauded Biden for these rhetorical escalations, while many Republicans have predictably whined and wailed. But what does this development mean for activists who are already taking action against fascism? A lot of people are speculating about how Biden’s enlivened language could affect the midterms. But whether or not the Biden administration’s heightened rhetoric affects voter turnout, it will not protect us from the fascist mass movement the right has loosed upon the world. As anti-fascists — and I hope we all identify as anti-fascists — we have to understand the limitations, and potential dangers, of viewing establishment Democrats as a driving force against fascism.
But given that Biden is finally talking about fascism, I think it’s important that we pause to reflect on what that word means, how fascism is manifesting itself in our society, and what combating it demands of us — because we are not going to gain that understanding from any framing that is being offered by the White House. So today we will be hearing from Tal Lavin, who is a journalist and author of the book Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy.
Tal Lavin understands the threat that fascists pose in the United States better than most people, because he embedded himself in their online worlds, creating fake names, social media accounts and profiles in order to learn more about how our enemies operate, and how we might expose and stop them. While writing Culture Warlords, Tal posed as a woman-hating incel and an antisemetic, white supremacist waitress, among other assumed identities, in order to infiltrate online spaces where right-wing radicalization was occurring — places where radicalized right-wingers were discussing their terrifying hopes, plans and desires. In doing so, Tal learned a great deal about how our enemies think, what animates their work, and how so many people have become fascists.
Tal Lavin: One thing about online, right-wing echo chambers is they’re not as monolithic as you might think. There is a spectrum of how people self-identify. There’s a lot of sectarian stuff: “I identify as a white nationalist,” “I identify as a civic nationalist.” There’s generational gaps, all this stuff. But the one thing you can generalize about is the way these spaces essentially function. Having observed them at close quarters for a long time, which I continue to do and have since the book has been published as well, is they really function as these sort of, I call it perpetual motion radicalization machines.
I mean, they’re just these really specialized echo chambers where there’s this continual message of stochastic violence. There’s continual propaganda and it never stops, and it’s going 24 hours a day. And in essence, they serve as incubators for both political violence, which is now abundantly clear can exist in both the “mainstream right,” as well as the far right where it’s resided for a long time.
So you really are faced with this issue where people are continually radicalizing each other and seeking recruits to draw into that milieu.
KH: One thing people should understand about these automated radicalization machines is that these environments were supercharged by the pandemic.
TL: First of all, radicalization thrives with isolation, and I think many, many people felt deeply isolated, felt and were deeply isolated during the pandemic. Another factor that contributes to radicalization is a sense of threat or uncertainty. And that certainly abounded, particularly in the early months of the pandemic, because we were told, over and over again, that the stakes were existential, but the responses didn’t feel particularly existential. There was doubt very early on, there was not a consensus.
So, put all of that together and you have a very strong recipe for people to kind of…. There’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking your own answers about world events. I don’t want to make it seem like, I’m like, no, you have to accept official narratives uncritically because that’s not how I feel.
On the other hand, I think this was sort of a hyper-concentrated scenario where people were feeling very adrift. There were a lot of bad faith, slimeball actors who were perfectly poised to take advantage of it. There’s a lot of anger and confusion and fear.
And so, all of those things put together makes for a perfect stew for radicalization to ferment in.
KH: While I certainly do not feel any sympathy for people on the far right, I do think it’s important to understand these dynamics. A 2021 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core found that 15 percent of Americans believe in QAnon conspiracy theories. As PRRI founder Robby Jones told the New York Times, “Thinking about QAnon, if it were a religion, it would be as big as all white evangelical Protestants, or all white mainline Protestants … So it lines up there with a major religious group.” The poll also found that 55 percent of Republicans “mostly disagreed” with QAnon’s outlandish claims but did not reject them entirely. That means only 1 in 5 Republicans completely rejected the idea that the Democratic Party is run by a cabal of satan-worshiping elites who also eat babies.
Biden has stated that he respects conservative Republicans but does not respect MAGA Republicans, whom he views as extremists. I understand the strategy. Electoral politics is a numbers game, and Biden is attempting to go hard against his enemies while minimizing alienation. But if, for our own purposes, we are dealing in reality, the idea that MAGA Republicans are not representative of conservatism is something we cannot afford to buy into.
The right wing has a vanguard, and while that vanguard may be stumbling, confused, and wholly divorced from reality, it also has the full backing of a major party, and many of that party’s members are currently attempting to overthrow the electoral system. MAGA and QAnon myths and conspiracy theories are now part of the mainstream character of the Republican Party. Republican leaders who previously denounced the Capitol riots now minimize those events as mere expression. Attempting to isolate the problem of fascism to a select group of extremists also erases the issue of complicity, which we cannot afford to do right now. Fascist atrocities do not occur in a vacuum. Silence and cooperation also pave the way to atrocity, which means we cannot afford to bask in notions of innocence right now. Many people are no longer resisting fascistic policies and actions. We have to be cognizant of that and aware of the dangerous part our silence or inaction could play in whatever comes next. Fascism requires mass participation and mass cooperation, and I am seeing a lot of both.
The official framing we are getting around fascism — much like the official framing used for the climate crisis — does not come close to encapsulating the stunning severity of our situation. The extreme right-wing radicalization we have seen in recent years cannot be neatly extracted from our politics, because it has fundamentally altered the nature of our political environment.
So how did millions of people who might have previously been run-of-the-mill racists, or even Obama supporters, get pulled into a moment of mass right-wing radicalization?
TL: One of the things that I found, and I write about this in my book, Culture Warlords, at some length, but one of the things I found very consistently in my study of how people get radicalized is, one of the biggest desires that many, many people have, one of the strongest desires out there for a lot of people is certainty — for someone to tell them what to do, how to think about a certain thing. And all of us, of course, feel this to some extent. No one is immune from just being like, well, I want to find an expert or a solid authority or just… I feel uncertain and that’s an uncomfortable feeling.
And one of the things that radicalizers, right, excel at is offering that certainty, saying like, “OK, I am certain. I do know. And only I will tell you the truth.” The motif of truth that’s hidden from all others, but revealed to the elect is both the religious motif, and also, I would say probably the single most important commonality between different kinds of conspiracy movements, different kinds of movements that espoused political violence.
I think there are almost always psychological explanations, human explanations for why people behave the way they do and why people believe the things they believe, which is not to say exculpatory explanations. Just because something is sort of human and natural doesn’t mean that it’s forgivable, per se. But in many cases, [people are motivated by] the desire to belong, the desire to comprehend your place in the world, the desire to feel significant or part of something important.
And certainly, in the case of pandemic era radicalization, the desire to feel as if the world isn’t actually incomprehensibly turning upside down, [and that] there are all sorts of perfectly rational explanations for the chaos around us. You know, you can see how in an era of tremendous fear and uncertainty and isolation, both that sense of belonging and that sense of certainty were incredibly powerful and felt incredibly necessary to a very wide variety of people.
KH: In uncertain times, people search for answers, and the internet is full of bad answers and radical rabbit holes. It is also full of spaces that will offer people a sense of belonging on very sketchy terms. In such spaces, belonging is grounded in identity and notions of supremacy. All grievances and anxieties are affirmed, and people are assured that their worst impulses are correct. That kind of belonging can draw people in very quickly. It’s important to understand these dynamics, because we are talking about tens of millions of people being radicalized toward right-wing ends within a period of a few years. And, as I have said before on this show, it’s easy to mock and be dismissive of people who believe that Democratic leaders eat babies, but I also think people should stop and ask themselves, “What might you be capable of if you believed that?” If you were convinced that a pedaphilic cabal that eats babies had illegally seized control of your government, how dangerous might you become? Because those automated radicalization machines Tal mentioned are running 24/7, generating that mindset in people.
As a result of that constituency, as well as the influence of Fox News, I hear from a lot of people who have lost relatives to QAnon conspiracy beliefs. Like other cults, QAnon can isolate people from the ones they love. Many liberals and leftists desperately want to de-radicalize their loved ones, whose worldviews have been rewritten by Tucker Carlson and a host of random YouTube grifters. But for the most part, I hear leftists saying, “Fuck those people.” Which is fine, up to a point. If someone has gone dark side, I do not think you are obligated to care about them, or to want to save them, but if we do not assess how this is happening, and take steps to prevent or interrupt these processes, our enemies will continue to amass an army — and these folks already have a lot of people, and a lot of guns.
Rather than focusing on deradicalization, Tal is concerned with prevention.
TL: Because I study the far right, people talk to me about de-radicalization a lot. And that’s not particularly… That’s neither my area of expertise nor sort of the thing I’m most interested in. I think that as a moral issue, yes, people are not irredeemable, et cetera, et cetera, but for me, the understanding piece of things is more about prevention than it is about sort of rescue.
I think when people talk about wanting to de-radicalize neo-Nazis and QAnoners, I think that’s a laudable impulse. I don’t deny that that can come from a really good place. But I think one of the narratives that I think about when it comes to de-radicalization is the story of Megan Phelps-Roper who grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. She was born into that family. And she was eventually de-radicalized. Because she ran the church’s Twitter account, and someone, like this guy started DM-ing her, and they wound up talking and that eventually set her on a path towards leaving the Westboro Baptist Church.
And that’s very laudable, but they wound up married. That’s the level of passionate interpersonal commitment that it takes to de-radicalize someone,, that level of intimacy. For many people, or Eli Saslow’s book Rising Out of Hatred, which is a wonderful book, talks about the son of Don Black, the founder of Stormfront, who was set up as the heir to this white supremacist dynasty. And eventually, he left the movement after, literally, years of being invited to Shabbat meals by a Jewish student at the college he attended.
Now, are we going to ask that of every marginalized person under threat? First of all, it’s a huge ask, one that leaves the would-be de-radicalizer at risk for radicalization in their own right, ironically enough. And the other piece of it, the other reason I’m skeptical of de-radicalization as the end-all-be-all is that people really do have to be ready for that process as well. It’s not something that you can force on a person, especially because leaving movements like this is, sometimes, physically dangerous. Certainly, it involves, in pretty much every case, the total loss of a community that has meant a lot to someone.
And so, you have to pour in at least as much resources as you would into getting someone out of an abusive relationship situation. I think people imagine themselves sort of riding up on a white steed and saving someone from being a Nazi. I think that’s a laudable desire, but it’s not necessarily scalable.
So, when I talk about deciphering the human motivations for this sort of radicalization, my motivation is not necessarily any sort of laudably altruistic desire to rescue people, but more to prevent people from getting enmeshed in the first place. And also, in the interest of knowing my enemy, frankly. I think once you know what motivates someone to even the most monstrous act, you’re closer to deciphering it and thus closer to preventing it.
That’s why so much of my book focuses on the psychology of how these movements develop, and I think about it all the time. But again, just because something is a naturally human impulse does not mean that it is a forgivable impulse. We can acknowledge that people are people and not monsters without forgiving them for acts that are deeply destructive.
One of the things that has been the most heartening for me in the response to Culture Warlords is the parents who’ve reached out to me and said that they’ve used the book, they’ve had their kids read the book, and teenagers who’ve read the book, and said that it’s helped them understand things going on with their classmates.
I mean, one element that I really saw is, and you see this in the ages of the white supremacist mass shooters, they’re 18, 19, 20. The radicalization is very youth-focused, and a lot of it takes place in online spaces that are targeted towards young people.
And so, one strength of my book, I think, is that it is fairly approachably written with me as your guide character. I think that, for parents, it can be useful to talk to kids about, and then, I think for teens and young people, it can be also a tool for understanding why did my friend suddenly start radicalizing? Like what happened? He was just into Minecraft a few months ago. I don’t get it. So, this is a little bit of a map. And I hope it can be used in that way.
KH: I also want to name that I really appreciate people who are doing deradicalization work, to invite people who have embraced right-wing conspiracy theories back to reality. I agree with Tal that marginalized people should not feel obligated to rescue the people who want us dead, but I also want us to consider that, in this era of catastrophe, our own communities are not immune from the influence of cults or conspiracy theories. We saw the truth and consequences of that during the pandemic. Understanding these dynamics is going to be crucial, regardless of who we are trying to safeguard, influence, or bring back to reality. Because a lot of people are going to be frantically searching for answers in the months and years to come, and it’s raining lies. We are awash in grifters and charlatans who are ready to build religions around their bullshit, so we need to figure out how to anchor ourselves in reality together. And some of us will have to think deeply about how we can invite people back to reality after they have detached themselves from it.
In examining the scale of our current crisis, I want people to understand that for things to be as far gone as they are in this country, we could not possibly be dealing in the reality that Biden describes, where fascism is a marginal force. Biden is invoking rhetoric that invites everyone but the most extreme Republicans to view their politics as separate from the politics that are driving this nightmarish moment. This language does not reflect the reality of our political circumstances. Those of us who want to do the work of politics need to understand those circumstances.
If we look at the history of fascist movements, or mass atrocity in general, genocidal outcomes are not the result of everyone simultaneously becoming a true believer. Some people participate in atrocity for social reasons. Some people become more prone to violence after enacting it in the context of shared purpose, or bonding with their fellow assailants. Some people will not engage in any acts of atrocity but may be biased against the targets of fascist violence, and they may express that bias in ways that lend fuel to the fascist fire.
TL: I had a recent conversation for my Substack with Michael Hobbes of Maintenance Phase and You’re Wrong About fame, who’s just a lovely person as well. And we talked about how much we both loathe and despise this sort of tendency in the mainstream media, which he dubs reactionary centrism.
And that’s the sort… the columnist who… I think Pamela Paul of The New York Times is a really great example of someone like that who’s writing… well, like both the left and the right want to erase women. And in one case, talking about the destruction of Roe v. Wade. And the second case is talking about how some leftists are like, “Hey, you should use trans-inclusive language when you’re discussing reproductive health,” like, as if these are morally equivalent and equally threatening. I find it absolutely putrid and very upsetting, a lot of different ways. It’s just so frighteningly evident of a media class that’s mostly concerned sort of their own personal convenience that makes false conflations as easily as you make toast.
I mean, it’s a very difficult and frustrating time to be someone with any kind of a critical focus on the media. And one of the reasons why… Michael and I talked about it as manufacturing consent for the authoritarian drift, because that’s really what you wind up seeing, is people very eagerly conflating, oh, someone made me uncomfortable on Twitter with like women are dying of sepsis, or, “Well, my child has to wear a mask at school, and this is equivalent to an entire generation of the elderly dying to this disease, [and COVID] becoming the third highest cause of death for people over 80, since 2020.”
It didn’t exist before 2020. And now, it is the third leading cause of death for that age group. I mean, yeah, it’s just wild to me. There’s been this sort of soft peddling of eugenics, “soft peddling” of particularly transphobia under this false veneer of concern for the children, which is the way so many moral panics manifest. I think there’s just an awful lot of people working at the consent factory who may be witting or unwitting accomplices to the authoritarian drift.
But at the end of the day, when the consequences of your work are that, you make it easier for authoritarians to abuse their chosen out group victims, like I’m not sure that your intention particularly matters.
KH: To succeed as a mass movement, fascism requires mass participation, and when someone forwards ideas or assumptions that bolster the fascist position, or further fascist violence, they are participating. I know it’s going to be really hard for some people to think about themselves, or people they know, as participating in fascism. The idea of having to guard against that may sound baffling and foreign, because they may see their values as existing in opposition to fascism. But fascism is not fought with self-perception. To be anti-fascist, we must be vocal and active in our opposition, and we must never lend fuel or cover to the fascist advance.
We must also understand that there is no ethical silence in the face of fascism. Silence is complicity and cooperation, which helps facilitate atrocity. That might likewise be hard to hear. But how many liberals and leftists have fallen silent on trans issues as the Republicans make the elimination of trans people from public life the new centerpiece of their politics? I am watching, horrified, as a lot of people who claim to share my values remain silent, allowing their biases, their beefs, or their sense of political expediency to override their decency, or any solidarity they might have previously lent to the targets of fascist groups. Under Trump, liberals and leftists raised hell about laws attacking trans people, so where did this wave of passivity come from?
TL: To me, it’s less about increased passivity or whatever, as a very successful propaganda campaign bearing fruit. And specifically, in the case of the moral panic around trans people, that has resembled a lot of prior moral panics in that it’s this fixation on the seduction of the innocent. This idea that children are under sexual threat. These ideas are very specifically meant to appeal to and scare the crap out of a certain kind of bourgeois parent. It’s very easy to sell dread to people who already feel uneasy with something.
So, that as a parent who might feel like, “Oh my gosh, like Timmy said that they’re non-binary, and I don’t know what that means. And that makes me uncomfortable.” Right? That is the person who’s going to, perhaps, feel a lot more receptive and a lot more justified in their unease, when you have an article in The Atlantic or whatever, saying, well, these kids are being forced into being trans. They’re being sliced and diced and brainwashed at the same time.
And, of course, it’s all founded on lies, but it’s very easy to sell people on like, “I’m not a bigot.” This social trend that just coincidentally makes me feel scared and old is actually very sinister. And I think it does connect to that chapter in my book where I talk about George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi party, and then, him playing out this weird fantasy where Black socialists in tanks take over the U.S., which sounds awesome to me anyway, but he’s like, ah, my neighbor, the nice liberal immediately picked up a gun and started shooting at these Black people because there’s no such thing as a white liberal in a tight corner.
I don’t agree with George Lincoln Rockwell about a lot. I do think there are people for whom liberalism, or a vague alignment with the progressive left is more of a social veneer or mark of caché, or just a way to fit in any deeply held set of values, of course, that exists. I don’t think it’s inevitable. And I do think in the specific case of the concerted attacks on trans rights, it’s really the fruit of a very successful transcontinental propaganda war casting trans people as a unique threat to children specifically.
KH: The fantasy sequence Tal described comes from the eleventh chapter of George Lincoln Rockwell’s book White Power, and I have to admit, as I read Tal’s description of that chapter in Culture Warlords, I felt a chill. Even though the scenario itself is a fascist fever dream, I have to agree with Tal that there are liberals whose opposition to racism, transphobia and fascism is a matter of social identity. In a moment of crisis, we have seen liberal celebrities grab onto Pamela Paul’s ideas about calls for gender inclusive language being on par with forced birth, while liberals and leftists have remained largely silent about eliminationist attacks on trans people. We have also seen people in liberal areas vote to criminalize homelessness, and embrace the abandonment of COVID mitigations, ramping up cycles of human disposal.
To reject fascism, we must actively oppose it. In the upcoming anthology No Pasaran, Tal dicusses what it means to be anti-fascist. He writes, “The simplest explanation is also the truest: antifascism exists in relation to fascism as antimatter does to matter—its opposite, and, hopefully, its equal. As fascism rises and spreads, so does the need for antifascism, and the people inspired to fight back.”
There is no silent opposition to fascism. U.S. politics have led many people to believe that they are defined by their stated beliefs, or by their self-assumed political identities. Liberals and leftists are unlikely to believe they are bolstering or facilitating fascism, but our self perceptions do not define our impact. In this spiraling political moment, most people have failed to actively challenge transphobia or the abandonment of COVID mitigations. We are still losing hundreds of people per day in the U.S. to COVID-19. Disabled and chronically ill people are being deemed expandable, or as simply having no place in public life. Why? Because the wheels of capitalism need to keep turning. So life gets cheaper, and people are cooperating en masse, and with far too little protest.
If you are thinking, “Well, the Biden administration is setting that agenda, not the Republicans,” you’re right, which is another reason the Democrats are not an effective force against fascism. As Buenaventura Durruti once said, “No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges.”
The Biden administration cannot be the “anti-matter” of fascism, because neoliberal Democrats are committed to the maintenance of capitalism, at any expense. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore stated at the Socialism Conference in Chicago over the weekend, “The Democratic establishment … is going to constantly yield to the authoritarians in order to maintain the most important thing that they are the political wing of, and that is capitalism.”
I would also like to share some words from Robin D.G. Kelley, from that same conversation, which was a live recording of “The DIG” podcast. Kelley said:
I don’t remember a generation of activists that were not fighting liberals. If you even look at the history of fascism in Europe, it’s the liberal regimes that cede to fascism…. The fascists did not overthrow the liberal regimes, they emerged out of them. And right after fascism was formally defeated, what did the regimes do…. They continued fascism in the colonies. That’s what they do. So … we have to be careful saying if we can uphold the liberal regime and silence ourselves, we could actually beat back fascism. That’s not how you beat back fascism.
The idea that disabled lives are more important than the maintenance of capitalism will never come from the powerful, because it is antithetical to their purpose. The idea that disabled people are not expendable is radical, especially in these times. To be the “anti-matter” of fascism, we must be anti-capitalist, and we must champion the idea that disabled people are not expendable. We must defend trans children and trans lives with unequivocal solidarity, regardless of difference, bias, or political disagreement. The Democratic establishment will yield to or align itself with the right, as needed, in order to maintain capitalism, and capitalism is not compatible with our freedom and survival.
Fascism’s antimatter is not liberalism; rather, it is the stuff collective survival is made of. Tal referred to anti-fascism as fascism’s “opposite” and “hopefully, its equal.” I think we need to think deeply about those words as we witness the continued rise of violence. I don’t think most people are even considering what it would mean to counter the rise of what is currently happening, and I think it’s dangerous to believe that casting a ballot, by itself, is sufficient opposition to people who are promising street violence and a civil war.
TL: The last time there was this prominent of a militia movement was back in the ’90s in the wake of Ruby Ridge and Waco. There was this movement of people arming themselves, and setting up these armed militia groups. And that militia movement has really risen again after a period of dormancy.
It’s always interesting to see when social movements resurrect after periods of dormancy, what does that look like? Why, and what’s changed? But as we see, the groups that were involved in January 6th and the groups that are facing legal culpability, many of them are these militia groups that are guys that… Men and women that form up and practice military drill on the weekends, and do all sorts of shenanigans in the name of Christ and the constitution. Certainly, they were heavily involved and heavily armed in the storming of the Capitol.
You also have the accelerationist fantasists on the very far fringe of the right who really fantasize about the destruction of the “tainted Jewish system” who follow this playbook laid out by prior generations of white supremacists, and whose goal is the goal of that kind of accelerationism. We see it on the right and the left. In fact, the term originated on the left. But essentially, [they believe that] like enough political violence will topple the “corrupt Jewish system.” That sort fantasizing happens as well, of course.
It’s interesting, we have these intersecting… again, besides Miller, the extreme right does have some ideological diversity and generation gap stuff. The militia guys have fairly little overlap with the sort of doomer like young neo-Nazis on 4Chan. But ultimately, these are two separate groups on the right who are talking about arming themselves, who are talking about what to do when the system inevitably falls.
And so, it is interesting to see the confluence, important to recognize the distinctions and goals and desires, but also, to be mindful of the fact that we are living in a time of an awful lot of ambient destructive energy towards the extant political system and towards marginalized people.
And that’s something that I’m continually aware of. Certainly, any teacher is aware of it right now, any doctor, any nurse, anyone who has to engage in any fashion with conservative parents. It’s very out in the open right now, and a lot of people who have fairly benign professions in any other time are facing considerable threat.
KH: One thing I hope people can get past, as quickly as possible, is the idea that we can defeat fascism in the realm of debate, or with fact checking, or by emphasizing their hypocrisy. I am not saying we should not highlight facts or acknowledge contradictions. I think those things are important, but they are not fighting words. I frequently see people on social media who think they are spiking the ball by pointing out how contradictory fascist positions are, and the fact is, none of that matters to a fascist, or to their target audience. What’s being sold to these people, and what’s being embraced, has nothing to do with facts, and it requires no consistency. In all cases, that which aligns with fascism is deemed right and true, and whoever and whatever does not is either irrelevant, false, or wicked.
TL: There is a tendency on the left and center left to focus consistently on hypocrisy and apparent contradictions in right wing speech. And the sort of “Blue Lives Matter, but also, defund the FBI when they raided Mar-a-Lago” is a perfect example, it’s like, don’t you guys “Back the Blue”? But that sort of thing, I really don’t find it a useful lens to look at the right through.
I find the useful lens is, like, you have to understand this movement as one that believes itself… Believes that it’s due is absolute power, that it’s seeking after power at all times. And the way they understand the police, and possibly, have always understood the police is as a very powerful armed group in society whose function is to get rid of the people they think are undesirable.
So, when cops were cracking down on the George Floyd protest, then, it was “Back the Blue.” When they’re raiding Mar-a-Lago, it’s like, “defund the FBI.” It’s very simple. It’s like when you’re going after the guys I dislike, you’re great, and when you’re going after the guys I like, fuck you. That’s part of it. And then, there’s also a fairly long history, I mean, we’re talking decades of certainly the fringe right, the sort of more violent, openly violent right going against federal authorities.
So, just as we’ve recently seen, bomb threats and shootings at FBI facilities, like the sort of renaissance of the white supremacist movement in the ’80s and ’90s really was coming after Waco, after Ruby Ridge, these sort of standoffs with federal authorities. You have these conspiracy theories about the New World Order, and nowadays, it’s the Great Reset and the deep state. And certainly, Donald Trump was quite hostile to the FBI because he’s a big giant crook, in part. Not that I’m super pro FBI, it’s just a funny situation.
The contradiction is only apparent, like, A, if you think of the police as a tool to subdue people who you dislike or want to destroy, then, you see any contradictory action or action you dislike as them stepping outside their remit. And B, if your goal is to violently tear down the system, then, the armed agents of the state are the first line of defense of that system. So, there are many reasons for the right to object to cops.
KH: Police are perhaps the best example of why we cannot rely on the state as a primary force against fascism. Police are a fascistic force, even though they will, on occasion, find themselves at odds with fascists who are not police. On January 6, some police were in league with the Capitol rioters, and in situations where state property and the lives of the ruling class are not at stake, collusion between police and fascist organizers is routine.
It is politically significant that Biden is using stronger language to describe the Republicans. But neoliberalism cannot be our salvation. It is the ideology that delivered us to fascism. And if the Democrats somehow thwart the current Republican advance, Democrats like Biden will continue to ramp up the violence of bordering, policing, and human disposal in their own ways.
In this era of catastrophe and collapse, neoliberalism may offer a longer, loopier, and less offensive path to authoritarianism, but that’s where it’s headed. As global disasters multiply, capitalism will become increasingly incompatible with the norms of liberal democracy. Biden’s calls to fund the hiring of 100,000 police officers, and to throw billions more at law enforcement agencies — in a country where COVID treatments and testing are being defunded — underline this reality. Biden recently stated that, “The answer is not to defund the police; it’s fund the police,” adding that, “We expect [police] to do everything…to protect us, to be psychologists, to be sociologists.” But rather than suggesting that we fund more psychologists or sociologists, Biden wants to throw more money at police. But police do not fill in for other professions. They dispose of people who are being denied other services. Police do not provide psychological care or sort out social problems. It’s the communities police victimize that have been defunded.
I once heard Angela Davis describe imprisoned people as being “catapulted beyond the bounds of democracy.” We are living through a moment when unhoused people are increasingly being catapulted beyond the bounds of any civic consideration. As the mere presence of unhoused people is increasingly criminalized, some have been driven into uninhabitable places, such as the Mojave desert, and died as a result. Disabled people have likewise been catapulted beyond the bounds of consideration in most matters. Because what matters under capitalism is that the wheels keep turning, no matter how many people get ground under. We are all acceptable sacrifices, if that’s what ongoing profits demand. The casualties may be chosen differently under Republicans, but we have to remember where all of this is going. Because while Democratic savior narratives might work turnout for the midterms, we know they are not real, and while I plan to vote in November, as an organizer, I also know that my political world cannot revolve around the ballot box.
To oppose fascism, we must be its anti-matter, and that is not what the Democrats are offering. Regardless of what has to be done at the ballot box, we cannot afford any confusion about who our friends are, or where this system is headed.
I know that awareness can be daunting. As activists and organizers, many of us are absorbing a lot of traumatizing information on a regular basis. In the afterword of Culture Warlords, Tal talked about the toll that immersing himself in fascist environments took on his psyche. He wrote:
Immersing myself in the worst of human nature while researching this book made me want to shrink inside the mollusk shell of my body, surrounded by air and hollow bone. I wanted to be sealed off. Every word felt painfully extracted from me: Rows of bad teeth grinned at me from the page. I hated myself, the world, and my words. Everything felt suffused with ugliness and I wanted to sleep all day.
In some cases, Tal encountered conversations about himself, among fascists who were unaware of his presence, discussing how “rapable” he was. In the book, Tal describes how absorbing all of that ugliness weighed on him.
TL: I mean, Culture Warlords, I am proud of it. It is also very much a freshman effort. It’s my first book, and I included more of myself than I might have if I were writing it now. But I did find the year plus that I spent, probably closer to 18 months that I spent, the vast majority of every day consuming white supremacist material to be very traumatic.
I mean, it took me a very long time to recover. And in some ways, because it coincided with an abusive relationship, it coincided with the beginning of the pandemic. It feels like a hole I’m still digging myself out of, and I’m still writing about the far right. Currently, most of my work has been about child abuse in the evangelical Christian community, which is not easy material to wade through either.
I think the biggest lesson I took away from the ferocious single-minded immersion I did for Culture Warlords is like: “Oh boy, I can’t do that again. That almost broke me.” You know, you wake up with this bad taste in your mouth, and you go to bed mad, and you wake up mad, and it’s almost overlaid on the world around you, this knowledge that people want to kill you and people want to kill your family and people want to kill people who are your friends. It’s a very dark weight to carry around with you all the time.
It just took me so long to dig myself out of the sort of frozen hole that I was in after finishing the book, that I realized like if I had allowed myself more balance in the first place, if I had allowed myself more time to write the book, so that every day didn’t have to be spent in perpetual darkness, I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time putting myself back together, like Humpty Dumpty, over here.
So, I think for activists, I would just say… I mean, it’s so hard to turn away, and there’s so much guilt any time you turn away. But if you do not take the time to deliberately find joy in your life, deliberately reconnect yourself with whatever it is that makes you feel alive and whole in the present, you will burn out. You will, perhaps, find yourself in places that are psychologically precarious and very difficult to recover from. And you will have to take the time to reconstruct yourself.
So, temper that guilt with the knowledge that you may be forestalling, like, ceasing being able to be involved in activism at all.
KH: One line I really appreciated, toward the end of Culture Warlords was, “Love is not optional. It is what we must marshal to break the back of the beast.” I have to admit, I teared up a bit upon reading those words, because nothing could be truer. I know why I believe that love is not optional, but I was eager to hear Tal say more about it.
TL: When I say love is not optional, it is what we must use to break the back of the beast, I mean that you can’t simply operate from a space of opposition. I mean, opposition, anger, rage, these are very useful emotions. Certainly, much of my work is motivated by anger. I do not discount the power of anger ever. Neither in my opponents, nor in myself.
However, I think there has to be an affirmative that you are also fighting for. There have to be ideals, there have to be relationships, be it family, be it chosen family, be it comrades, fellow activists. There have to be affirmatives in place for this struggle to be sustainable in the long term. Because anger is super high-octane fuel, right? It’s like race car fuel, it burns really hot. It can drive you really fast, really far, but it will burn you out.
And if you don’t have something to sustain you over the long term, if you don’t have things that tether you and nourish you, things that you find yourself fighting for and not simply against, it’s very difficult to sustain that battle over the long term, which is, unfortunately, this is an ethical struggle. It’s not one that’s going to dissolve in the next five years or even 10. Forces that have been awakened are not ones that can be tidily tucked away. And it will be a struggle, perhaps, for the rest of our lives.
And so, you can’t wade into that with just a whole lot of rage and a death wish. You have to have things you are working towards, people you are working with. These anchors of, yes, love, and affirmation as well.
KH: Fascism thrives on hatred and self obsession. The “anti-matter” of fascism must embody love and empathy. A true force against fascism must reject human disposability and challenge the status quo. I know a lot of people cannot imagine themselves consenting to fascism, on any level, but we have already been conditioned to leave people behind. Millions of people are experiencing torture, deprivation, and premature death due to the violence of the prison industrial complex. If we can be conditioned to ignore that, we can be conditioned to ignore much more, and it’s already happening. So I want us to think long and hard about what it means to be anti-fascist, and what this moment demands of us, beyond a trip to the ballot box in November. Because while it’s easy to zero in on big electoral moments, the shift we are experiencing is much larger than that, and we are going to need a larger vision to make a better world.
I also hope people will check out Tal’s substack, The Sword and the Sandwich, which is the only Substack I am personally subscribed to, because in addition to providing important insights about right-wingers, Tal also offers readers some welcome interruptions to that content. Every Friday, Tal writes about sandwiches. In keeping with his advice that we should not spend all of our time immersed in painful topics, Tal has written 34 essays about sandwiches, following Wikipedia’s list of notable sandwiches in alphabetical order. As someone who writes about right-wingers and collapse, but longs to write about my favorite TV shows, I am delighted by Tal’s approach, and I really recommend checking out Tal’s substack, which will be linked in the show notes of this episode on our website at truthout.org.
I want to thank Tal Lavin for joining me today to talk about fascism and right-wing radicalization. I highly recommend checking out his book, Culture Warlords, and sharing its lessons with the young people in your life.
I also want to give a shout out to Melody Ng, who has been one of the primary fact checkers for this podcast. Melody is on another exciting journey now, and we are all so happy for her, but we are also going to miss her. Thank you for all your work, Melody, and for making this show stronger.
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.
To lean more from Tal Lavin:
- Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Tal Lavin
- The Sword and the Sandwich by Tal Lavin
- QAnon Now as Popular in U.S. as Some Major Religions, Poll Suggests by Giovanni Russonello
- The Dig LIVE: What Now? Perspectives on the Conjuncture
- The Fascist War on Trans Rights by Tal Lavin
- As police crack down on homelessness, unhoused end up in Mojave desert by Sam Levin
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