We are in a dangerous political moment. The far right has surged with the support of President Donald Trump. The late spring mobilizations to ‘re-open the economy’ were a stepping stone to a much larger presence of armed militias and neo-fascists at Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Kenosha and Portland; these forces appearing as allies of the local police forces or Trump’s federal officers. While the far right is still a small and unpopular political movement in the United States—made up of competing political factions and cornucopia of contradictory and bizarre ideas—worse is yet to come if we don’t act against them.
“It feels like a threshold has been crossed,” Joe Lowndes, a political science professor at University of Oregon who studies the far right, told the Financial Times. “I’m not predicting violence on election day…but the conditions are there that have not been present before.” The far right has gone from threats, brandishing weapons and menacing demonstrators, to action: Kyle Rittenhouse murdered of two anti-racist protesters and attempted to kill another in Kenosha on August 25. Four days later, a caravan of hundreds of Trump supporters invaded Portland— armed with paint ball guns and bear spray—assaulted radical activists in dramatic escalation of violence .
Trump lavished praise on his paramilitary supporters, calling them “Great Patriots” while retweeting the video of the caravan invading Portland. Trump highlighted the death of Aaron ‘Jay’ Danielson, a member of the violent, far right organization Patriot Prayer. Danielson was shot and killed by self-proclaimed Antifa supporter Michael Forest Reinoehl. Not long after, Reinoehl confessed to Vice News that he shot and killed Danielson because, “I could have sat there and watched them kill a friend of mine of color. But I wasn’t going to do that.” Members of a fugitive task force later killed Reinoehl outside of Olympia, Washington.
US Attorney General William Barr applauded Reinoehl’s killing, who he denounced as “a dangerous fugitive, admitted Antifa member, and suspected murderer.” Barr characterized it a significant accomplishment in the ongoing effort to restore law and order in Portland and other cities. He went on to proclaim,
The streets of our cities are safer with this violent agitator removed, and the actions that led to his location are an unmistakable demonstration that the United States will be governed by law, not violent mobs.
If this isn’t painting a target on the back of every anti-fascist/anti-racist activist in the country, what is? Reinoehl’s death was recently ruled a ‘homicide’ by Thurston County Coroner Gary Warnock in Washington state.
From May 27 onward, Alexander Reid Ross, a scholar who studies the far right, estimates that far right paramilitary groups or individuals have shown up at 497 protests this year carrying out “64 cases of simple assault, 38 incidents of driving cars into demonstrators, and nine times shots were fired at protesters.” Provided the opportunity, there’s no indication that the far right won’t continue their reign of terror against our side.
We defeated the Trump-era far right once before: in a period of two weeks in August 2017, our mass mobilizations in Charlottesville, Boston, and the Bay Area drove them off the streets. These humiliating defeats, after James Fields’ murder of Heather Heyer, produced a political crisis for the far right that led to various groups disintegrating and leading figures withdrawing from public view. While anti-fascist campaigning has continued across the country, primarily in Portland, the latest upsurge caught many of us off-guard. We need to act quickly and with renewed purpose to deal with these new threats to the Left and Black liberation movement.
Kenosha: A Turning Point
On the night of August 25, Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed protestors Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, and wounded another, Gaige Grosskreutz, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This was a graphic example of the far right escalating violence in the United States. Rittenhouse responded to a call from the “Kenosha Guard” , who created a Facebook event “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property” in order to intimidate anti-racist demonstrators who had been marching daily since the Kenosha police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back and paralyzed him from the waist down.
The seventeen-year-old Rittenhouse was driven the twenty miles from his home in Antioch, Illinois by his mother Wendy, a nurse’s assistant. Vice News interviewed many of Rittenhouse’s former classmates from Lakes Community High School, who portrayed him as a hardcore Trump supporter wearing a MAGA hat to school and who went out of his way to antagonize his classmates calling them “libtards.” Several of his former classmates thought of him as a future mass shooter. His mother removed him from school claiming he was bullied.
Kyle Rittenhouse has been described by various media outlets as a ‘police admirer’ with ‘Blues Lives Matter’ material posted on his Facebook page. Revealingly, he was a member of a Public Safety Cadet Program that recruited teenagers. According to USA Today:
The website for that [Public Safety Cadet Program] group, [was] also removed from view Wednesday, said cadets, who are between the ages of 14 and 20, are schooled in police procedures including traffic stops, crash investigations, firearms, domestic disputes and crime scene investigation.
Such youth programs across the country are one of the ways that various U.S. police and military organizations recruit to their ranks. Rittenhouse made no attempt to hide that he went to Kenosha; he posted a mug shot of Blake on Snapchat with the caption, “lol, he’s innocent.”
Rittenhouse reported the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he “considered himself a member of some sort of militia, trying to protect life and property, according to his social media posts and video interviews.” He met up with dozens of all-white, heavily armed vigilantes who made their way to downtown Kenosha. They received a friendly reception from Kenosha’s police department:“We appreciate you guys,” one officer told them. “We really do.” Rittenhouse told The Daily Caller, a conservative website, his motivation for being in Kenosha:
“People are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business, and part of my job is also to help people,” said Mr. Rittenhouse, wearing a backwards baseball cap and fingering a rifle strapped to his chest. “If somebody’s hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle, because I need to protect myself, obviously. I also have my med kit.”
The “our” in “our job” is clearly a reference to the alliance between the Kenosha police and the white vigilantes that flocked to the city. Using the cover of stopping looting, the vigilantes targeted anti-racists demonstrators and activists. David Bowen, an African-American state representative from Milwaukee, told Democracy Now!:
I literally witnessed firsthand a massive amount of organized white supremacists driving around in pickup trucks, targeting protesters. And they were there not to try to defend businesses, as they make it seem. They were not there to attempt to get a point across. They were there to hurt people. They were armed, and they were using chemical irritants. They were harassing protesters. And even from the video, it looks like they are in coordination with the Kenosha law enforcement that were there, literally.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recreated the events that night interviewing witnesses, participants, and reviewing video. In one clip, a vigilante bragged:
You know what the cops told us today? They were like, ‘We’re gonna push ‘em down by you, ’cause you can deal with them and then we’re gonna leave.'”
This confirms the witness account of State Representative Bowen. Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth denied any coordination with vigilantes and claims he denied a request to deputize them. It’s hard to take Sheriff Beth’s denials seriously. Beth is a notorious racist, caught on video calling for “garbage people” to be warehoused for life. Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis defended the vigilantes:
“Across this nation there have been armed civilians who have come out to exercise their constitutional right and to potentially protect property,” he said. “Am I aware that groups exist? Yes, but they weren’t invited to come.”
President Donald Trump defended Rittenhouse. At a White House press conference, he declared:
“I guess he was in very big trouble,” Trump said of Rittenhouse. “He would have been, he probably would have been killed. But it’s under – it’s under investigation.”
Far right vigilantism is not a new phenomenon in the United States. From the Reconstruction era Ku Klux Klan to the Midwest-based Black Legion of the early 1930s to the militia movement of the 1990s, far right paramilitary groups have populated the scenery of far right politics. Throughout the 20th Century they emerged, largely but not exclusively, from a white, nativist middle class with some very wealthy patrons. The far right vigilantism emerges as a reactionary response to economic decline and a ‘crisis of status’ brought about by advances made by women and long oppressed in racial and ethnic peoples. Extreme anti-Black racism and xenophobia are at the core of their beliefs, with bizarre conspiracy theories—almost always anti-Semitic at their core—used to explain their decline.
The most recent far right resurgence began in the spring. Heeding President Donald Trump’s call to “liberate” states and “re-open” the economy, rallies linked to conservative foundations were organized in late April and early May. While the rally organizers largely targeted Democratic governors in the Midwest, protests of one kind or another eventually took place in thirty of fifty state capitals, calling for an end to COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures. These relatively small protests with ranging from a few hundred to a thousand participants were heavily covered by the media and drew an array of armed patriot groups and outright Nazis.
Protests across the country saw displays of Revolutionary War-era flags and slogans along with American and Confederate flags. Right-wing protesters carried signs that denounced “Communism” and “tyranny;” many, not all, also saw the open brandishing of automatic weapons and threats of violence. Some protesters denounced governors as “Nazis,” while they mingled with real Nazis. The most terrifying scenes were in Lansing, Michigan where armed fascists stormed the state capitol building on April 30 to demand the reopening of the state. Casting aside medical advice, the fascists chanting “let us in”confronted state policemen, who blocked them from getting to the assembly floor.
Trump called on Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to:
Give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.
Trump’s intervention was an eerie recycling of the his role following the murder of Heather Heyer and dozens of anti-fascists seriously injured in Charlottesville, Virginia, who protested the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017. He declared violent Nazis in Charlottesville, “very fine people.”
The far right, however, were not done with Michigan when they called for a ‘Judgement Day’ rally at the state capitol building on May 14th. In response to this ominous sounding call, Whitmer closed the capitol building and canceled its legislative session. It is the first time that I’m aware of that a democratically-elected state government in the United States shut down because of threats of violence from the far right. Sarah Anthony, an African-American state representative, was so concerned about her personal safety at the Michigan state capitol building that she was accompanied to work by a six-person Black armed escort organized by firefighter Michael Lynn, Jr.
The far right vigilantes radicalized even further in response to the national uprising against racism following the police murder of George Floyd. “I never thought that I’d be in the back of a pickup rolling through downtown Olympia with six guys heavily locked and loaded, armored out,” said Peter Diaz, a former Army reservist told the Washington Post. “I’m doing something now that’s for a greater cause than myself. And it feels really . . . good.” Diaz ran a tree trimming busing. In response to Black Lives Matter protests, he decided to form his own political party and militia: American Wolf. The Washington Post profile of him describes how he is part of,
a roving band of civilians who have anointed themselves “peacekeepers” amid months of tense protests over racism and policing. In the name of law and order, members of his informal group have shot paintballs at demonstrators and carry zip ties and bear spray as they look for antifascists. Diaz has done “recon” in Minneapolis and Seattle’s “autonomous zone,” and drove his American Wolf mobile home to Mount Rushmore to celebrate Independence Day with President Trump.
Many of the longstanding far right vigilante groups like the Oath Keepers or the Three Percenters were spurred into existence because of the election of Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American president. On the face of it, many of the new militia groups came out of nowhere. But Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, argues, “What we’re seeing right now is the outward manifestation of years of organizing by militia-type groups,” “They’ve moved from backwoods training to on-the-streets activism.”
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies across the country have become populated with officers sympathetic to or members of far right. White supremacist organizations have begun blurring the distinction between law enforcement and far right militias, like we saw in Kenosha. The Brennan Center in a recently released study reports:
In 2017, the FBI reported that white supremacists posed a “persistent threat of lethal violence” that has produced more fatalities than any other category of domestic terrorists since 2000. Alarmingly, internal FBI policy documents have also warned agents assigned to domestic terrorism cases that the white supremacist and anti-government militia groups they investigate often have “active links” to law enforcement officials.
Many of the new far right paramilitaries claim not to be racist or sympathetic to fascism or Nazism but a close look shows that many members are, despite in some cases having Black or Latino members. Yet, like the fascists of the years between WWI and WWII, the militias are less defined by what they say about themselves than what they do. The German Nazis or the Italian Fascists saw themselves as military formations organized to destroy a revolutionary workers movement and its leading parties, the Social Democrats and the Communists, and its unions.
Today’s far right militias are fighting an emergent movement for Black liberation and a new socialist Left, while allied with an increasingly authoritarian state. Again quoting Professor Lowndes, the Financial Times noted: “appeals to a strong, armed figure needed to protect the polity has a long, dangerous history, frequently tied to fascist movements. In the US, that has taken the form of “claiming to represent forces of order, and of volunteerism, and of civic obligation, and doing the right thing”.”
The militias may wave the flags of the American revolution, but the actions are more like the fascist gangs of the 1920s and early 1930s. Historian Peter Amann writing about the Black Legion in the 1930s—immortalized in Humphrey Bogart’s 1937 film of the same name— described its politics and organization as a ‘hybrid’ of European fascism and U.S. secret societies like the KKK, what he called “Vigilante Fascism.” This is perhaps the most useful way of looking at the incipient far right militia movement in the U.S.
“The most important election of our lifetime”
For a broad range of people the way to defeat the threat of fascism in the United States today is to go and vote for the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The day after her speech seconding Bernie Sanders for president during the virtual Democratic National Convention, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) took to Instagram with a video that laid out her perspectives on the 2020 presidential election to her millions of followers. “We need to win in November,” AOC said, “November is about, in my opinion, stopping fascism in the United States, and that is what Donald Trump represents.”
In a Teen Vogue article entitled, “In the 2020 Election, I’m Casting a Ballot Against Full-Blown Fascism”, Kelly Hayes, wrote along the same lines:
I am writing this message to the broken-hearted electorate, some of whom believed, not so long ago, that this system just might swerve in a more hopeful direction. I am also speaking to everyone who knew better than to expect anything from this process, but who feel like they’ve been kicked in the teeth all the same…If Trump is the fascist I believe he is, I worry he will not leave without a fight, no matter November’s outcome. If Trump is victorious, so many will be ground under so quickly that I can barely stand the sight of it in my own mind.
The public statements by AOC and Hayes are the latest in a growing list of political interventions seeking to sway the new generation of young voters and U.S. radicals, largely members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), to vote for, if not out-rightly endorse and campaign for, the Democratic Party’s Biden-Harris ticket. In many cases, veterans of the 1960s New Left have joined this chorus. For other figures in the U.S. Left, Trump’s increasing authoritarian rule are reasons enough to campaign for Biden.
Tens of millions of people will go and vote for Biden and Harris in November; an election that they will likely win. Yet, what we’ve learned from U.S. and European politics during the past four decades is that the neoliberal policies of the mainstream political parties of various stripes are what have created the opening for new xenophobic, if not outright, fascist parties. Even worse, as I wrote a few years back, “In many cases, the parties of the far right have recast themselves as ‘working class’ parties.” Working class votes, like those in Kenosha county, helped Trump win the Electoral College. Far too many working class people are influenced by the racist and xenophobic ideas that militias feed off of. Millions of working class people will unfortunately vote for Trump in November, also.
What we learned in November 2016 is that when the only choice provided is between neoliberal business as usual, and a reactionary alternative, the far right can (and does) often win. But what we learned in August 2017 is that mass mobilizations can beat the far right, and can strengthen our ability as a Left to present our own alternative. Anywhere from 15 to 26 million people marched against police racism in the United States. The far right is far smaller than us. But, while an opportunity to organize against the far right on a large scale similar to the “Unite the Right” rally is not likely in the near future, thousands of activists across the country are currently involved in anti-fascist campaigning. We need to bring those voices together to discuss the next step in taking on this new threat. Trump may be gone after the November election, the far right will remain.
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Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer. His latest book is The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS.