Following Donald Trump’s inauguration, Richard Spencer, a leading voice in America’s white nationalism movement, was physically attacked during an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation on the street in Washington, D.C. Reportedly, Spencer was being asked about whether or not he is a neo-Nazi—to which he replied that he is not—and then was prompted for a response about why he was wearing a Pepe the Frog pin, when he was punched in the face by a masked protestor. According to Spencer, he was punched twice and spat on in the aftermath of Trump’s swearing in, something about which he didn’t seem all that fazed. Evidently, when you are a white nationalist with a vaguely douche-y self-assured attitude, you are used to or at least mentally prepared to be physically beaten. Of course, this did not stop Richard Spencer from utilizing Twitter and Periscope to relay his account of the attacks to his followers, and to denounce the “antifas” who perpetrated this violence. For all the wry amusement of his notion that he can “take a punch,” it loses something in the conversion to a heart-to-heart via social media that potentially allows his fellow white supremacist friends to rally behind him.
Speaking of social media, the reaction of non-alt-righters was one of near-universal celebration. Richard Spencer, like any ultra-conservative provocateur, is bound to ruffle some feathers, not to mention—in my humble opinion—the man seems to look as if his face beckons a punching. In light of his nationalist ideologies, the memes and jokes were flowing like no one’s business. Confessedly, I enjoyed some of them, especially the idea that he did Nazi that first blow coming. (In case you missed it, read that last sentence out to yourself. Get it? Good.) However, the notion that we were celebrating a man getting punched in the face without remorse was a bit startling. For those of us more discerning types, the whole white supremacy and making “Heil Hitler” signs bit is indefensible, but just because his beliefs are reprehensible doesn’t mean he should be physically attacked. He’s still a human being, after all. If we can talk about respecting the civil rights of convicted felons in prisons, then certainly, Spencer deserves the same or better. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of not getting sucker punched on the street in broad daylight. I’m pretty sure that’s how it was written by our Founding Fathers, yes.
Danielle Allen, a political theorist at Harvard University, agrees, and expressed her views in the form of a piece which appeared in The Washington Post entitled, “No, don’t punch more Nazis.” Allen’s sentiments are a direct response to an observed instance of a Netroots Nation member wearing a custom-made T-shirt to a recent public event headlined by Elizabeth Warren, encouraging the viewer—however genuinely—to “PUNCH MORE NAZIS.” Even in gest, however, Allen argues this kind of thinking is patently destructive, if not self-defeating. The principle of nonviolence should be a nonpartisan issue, with the goal of a relatively peaceful and stable society ideal for members of all party affiliations and those otherwise unattached to a particular political designation. When the courts and the laws fail, Allen stresses, the answer is not taking the law into one’s hands, but rather reform of these institutions. With violence, the bridge to a better path forward is obstructed, if not burned outright. Consummate with this notion, it cannot be said here that “the ends justify the means.” That is, one cannot fight for justice with injustice. No fists, no kicks, no guns—only the kind of moral clarity that beckons true justice.
The rise of Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacists and others who reject trends toward increased cultural sensitivity and globalism for the United States of America. In pandering to their interests and playing to Americans’ sense of fear and hate, Trump has inspired a lot of anger and anxiety from people on the left and those otherwise outside the vanguard of the conservative right. With this, there seems to be a growing acceptance of violence as a fact of rallies, protests, and counter-protests, and it would appear that many on the left don’t recognize this is as a problem, whether they are convinced these shows of aggression are justified because of possession of moral high ground, they genuinely are unaware of what is going on, or they are unable to confront the situation. Richard Spencer referenced the term “antifa” in his social media tell-all following his attacks, but it’s only very recently that this term has begun to reach the national consciousness, much as alt-right—a term widely credited to Spencer in describing the movement—really came to prominence with its mention by Hillary Clinton. Pres. Trump has used antifa and “alt-left” to try to demonize liberals and to galvanize support from his base in his apparent never-ending campaign for President—even closing in on a year since his electoral victory. I guess after an overstated career as a businessman and entrepreneur, and given a glaring inability to lead the country effectively, he might as well as stick to the one thing he (miraculously) hasn’t been able to totally screw up lately.
What exactly do these terms mean, though? It’s doubtful Donald Trump fully comprehends them—or even knows how to pronounce them, for that matter. First of all, concerning “alt-left,” this is largely nonsensical. Self-respecting left-leaners do not refer to themselves by this moniker, as it is a creation of conservatives looking to demean liberals as morally bankrupt individuals, and if used by actual liberals, it is probably in the pejorative sense and meant to distinguish the more progressive elements of the left from its more moderate members, i.e. we want nothing to do with you progressives under normal circumstances, but please give us your vote on Election Day. As for “antifa,” this is short for “anti-fascist,” and is awfully broadly stated to assign an exact definition beyond that. What appears to distinguish this movement from the larger progressive liberal movement in America is the use of force and violence against people and property alike. Some antifa members are even denoted by their dress: all black and wearing masks; they are commonly known as “black bloc” activists and this style has origins in 1980s-era protests in Germany against neo-Nazism, with vague sentiments toward anti-capitalism and a rejection of police states and a theoretical New World Order. With these anti-government sentiments, though, it quickly becomes apparent we are not dealing with a purely liberal or even characteristically leftist association.
Going back to The Washington Post, its editorial board recently published an excellent primer on the subject of antifa, with due context as to who and what antifa groups represent—or don’t represent—how much of a threat antifa is to the very societal order—or isn’t—and what their actions stand to accomplish—or not accomplish. Some key observations from its synopsis:
1. Comparisons between antifa and white supremacist groups are false equivalencies.
There is a general consensus that white nationalism, apparently on the rise in the United States and elsewhere, is a threat which must be addressed and confronted as a rejection of hate; such is why President Trump’s comment talking about violence on both sides in Charlottesville was so abhorrent. Antifa groups, most notably at a recent protest in Berkeley, California against Marxism in America, have been responsible for their fair share of violence and/or unrest. But this does not mean these two movements are on the same level. As the WP editorial board is keen to state, it “would not for a minute equate it to the menace of violent, ultra-right white supremacist groups, which are enjoying an ugly renaissance bred, in part, by the succor President Trump has given to racial and religious intolerance.”
2. As of yet, there is no “clear and present danger” from antifa groups regarding the “broader political system.”
As the board frames this notion, antifa violence has “shown a disturbing capacity for intimidating and confusing various officials in locales” across the country. Incidents in Middlebury, Vermont and Portland, Oregon—perhaps unexpected settings for confrontations—are cited within the opinion piece. Returning to Berkeley for a moment, the violence encountered there prompted Mayor Jesse Arreguin—endorsed by Bernie Sanders, among others, in his mayoral bid—to even call for authorities to recognize antifa members as part of a “gang,” which could mean potential tougher sentences for any offenses committed, as per California law. Heretofore, however, these are largely isolated incidents.
3. This is not to say, though, that antifa groups should not be considered dangerous.
Per the Washington Post editorial board, this is a two-pronged danger. The first is more obvious: intimidation and violence do harm to people, property, and the very free speech the First Amendment is designed to protect. This is not to be undersold, and is why it appears in the very title of this piece. The second danger, meanwhile, and one which may or may not be appreciated by antifa members, is that such violence threatens the overall progress the country is making against hate and racism, and only risks fueling the forces that antifa seeks to eradicate. To give the board the final say on the subject, “In terms of objective political impact, the group is badly misnamed: ‘Profa’ would be more accurate.” Harsh, but not wholly undeserved.
Antifa groups who use threats of bodily harm or worse do not represent the whole of the Resistance, and realistically, as the Post explains, are “not liberals or democrats, much less liberal Democrats.” Nonetheless, whether as a kneejerk reaction from mainstream political analysts or specifically as a means of trying to demonize the left for political capital, their activism all too easily becomes conflated with that of peaceful groups on the liberal side of the spectrum. For moderate Democrats and progressives alike, this is problematic. For one, it allows right-wingers on FOX News and Breitbart to point and shout across the aisle at what many conservatives see as a flawed, immoral ideology inherent in liberalism. To give conservatives, ahem, more ammunition would appear to be in bad form. Not to mention it gives Donald Trump and his ilk a subject around which to rally and engender support (and, of course, accrue donations). In addition, without the requisite response from groups which stand to be lumped in with these bad actors among law-abiding protestors, more reputable organizations run the risk of appearing less legitimate and/or out of touch with what is going on their own house, so to speak. Assuming people will be able to see the difference is not sufficient, if Donald Trump’s electoral win has taught us anything. Especially when so many red voters are made to think that the liberal left is clueless, employing a laissez-faire approach to dealing with the growing presence of antifa is arguably self-defeating.
Accordingly, it is incumbent upon members of the Democratic Party and sympathetic politicians and activists on the left to strongly denounce the use of violence, the damage of property, and the disruption of free speech and assembly which antifa has represented and can represent in the future. By now, it is impossible to get ahead of the narrative being spun by Sean Hannity et al. that antifa is symptomatic of liberal politics in sum, but a certain amount of damage control is prudent, if not necessary to avoid ceding ground to a Republican Party which has itself ceded control to more conservative elements and which all but sat idly by as Donald Trump decimated its field of similarly unqualified political entrants and ineffectual insiders en route to the party nomination. At the same time, news media should be held accountable for their characterization of antifa, and should clearly delineate the difference between its destructive elements and groups which prioritize peaceful reform of faulty institutions, and should refrain from false comparisons between antifa and white supremacist groups. Antifa, unlike members of white nationalist and white supremacist groups, does not discriminate based on race or any other demographic characteristic, not to mention the movement lacks a real sense of cohesion. This is not to say, however, that antifa is highly moral or that its actions can’t be considered terroristic. Here is a situation that really craves a fair and balanced press to put antifa’s existence in its proper perspective.
Regardless of whether or not antifa is classified as a “gang” or “hate group,” people on both the left and right should decry the use of violence as a political tactic no matter who aims to implement it. As it must be stated and restated, violence as a political tool is not the answer. It is antithetical to its very aims and advancement through reform, and if we cannot agree to this end, we cannot have the kind of discussion we need as Americans to make real progress on this issue.