As American antifascists process the storming of the Capitol and look ahead at years of a far-right ‘resistance’ insurgency against Biden, are we going to see the far-right storming Parliament here? No – they have no need to. They already have the government they wanted. Here we have the dual threat of a continuing Trumpist populist government and the ever-present risk of a renewed far-right upsurge on the streets should that government’s agenda be challenged or if the racist passions it has stirred up are not perceived to be being gratified quick enough.
Tragedy or farce? – Initial reactions
It has now been a week since the storming of the US Capitol and new details and new information are still emerging, but the picture is a little clearer. Initially, it was a confusing and bewildering spectacle. It was clearly A Big Deal, but also had an air of the absurd. Initial coverage in the media and online focussed a lot on people in stupid costumes taking selfies and fucking about, which then made it hard to take it seriously when the media also described it as an “attempted coup”. Surely an attempted coup is when the army seizes the airports and generals go on TV to announce martial law? It didn’t seem to be that, so what the fuck was it? Was it just a demo that got lucky and managed to shove its way inside a building? Or was it a serious attempt to overthrow democracy? If so, how were they planning to do it? By stealing the sign off Nancy Pelosi’s door? Also the photos from inside the Capitol didn’t show the true scale of the crowd – they showed handfuls of people wandering around the corridors and sitting in the speaker’s office. It looked like an office occupation where a bunch of hippies manage to get inside Shell HQ and then don’t know what to do when they get there.
What we know now
However, more information has emerged and it’s now easier to get a perspective on what happened:
1) This was not just a handful of idiots in costumes. It was a really large crowd – certainly thousands of people, possibly tens of thousands. Several hundred appear to have got inside the building. It was a heterogenous crowd – containing some fools and lunatics, but also every faction of the far-right in the US was well represented – Nazis, Proud Boys, alt-right edgelords, Q Anon weirdos, militia types… as well as more ‘normal’ Trump supporters – if that’s even a thing. It was similar to Charlottesville in managing to more or less ‘unite the right’. Very extreme iconography and symbolism were conspicuous (Camp Auschwitz, 6 Million Was Not Enough). It should also be noted that those thousands on the demo represent an even larger number out there in the country: 77% of Republican voters believe Trump’s lie about the stolen election and 45% of them support the storming of the Capitol – which suggests 33 million people back a far-right insurrection to overthrow the government.
2) The cops effectively let them in. Exactly who authorised what when is still to be determined, but it is clear the crowd didn’t shoot their way in – they slightly shoved their way in, if that. Cops even appeared to open gates and barriers for them at various points, as well as taking selfies and holding doors for the rioters. However, whether the cops there on the ground were sympathetic to the rioters – many certainly appeared to be, though others (especially the black cops) probably less so – is a bit irrelevant. Despite it being completely public what was being planned, decisions had already been made ahead of time by the DC police to be almost entirely absent and by the Capitol police to only very lightly contain the demo. In addition, assistance from the National Guard had been repeatedly refused in the days leading up to the demonstration and was also refused on the day by Trump himself and the Department of Defence.
Many people have pointed out that the cops don’t see white people as a threat and that therefore the policing of the demonstration is an example of white privilege made visible. This is all true of course, but largely white left-wing demonstrations (the J20 demonstrations against Trump’s inauguration for example, or antifascist protests in Portland) have still been policed very differently to this. So there is more going on than simply the normal highly racialised policing of the USA. Firstly, there has also been a long-term institutional downplaying of the threat of white supremacist violence. Secondly, the police as an organisation are unsurprisingly sympathetic to Trump and to the (far) right. The Democrats have to an extent been influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement against the police and calls to defund police forces across the country, whereas Trump has offered law enforcement carte blanche to do whatever they want. Thirdly, on an individual level it is not difficult to find cops spouting far-right or racist stuff online and there are multiple reports of off-duty cops among those storming the Capitol.
However, even taking all this police sympathy for the rioters into account, it’s hard not to see the prior decisions made about the minimal policing of the Capitol and the repeated refusals of backup as evidence of a (real) conspiracy from the top to give the rioters the best chance to gain access to the building.
3) It’s all about race. Underneath all the noise about stolen elections, conspiracies etc, really all you need to know is that. The coincidence of Georgia electing its first ever black Senator on the same day as the storming of the Capitol could not have made it any plainer. What was Trumpism ever about? ‘Taking the country back’ and turning back the clock to ‘make America great again’ is all coded racial language about resisting demographic change, or at least resisting the democratic representation of that change. As Timothy Snyder pointed out, when they talk about voter fraud, what they mean is black voting, which in their mind can only be fraudulent. They are dreaming of an America without black voting. If a lot of old white people are terrified of losing control of ‘their’ country to black and brown people, then the police are the means by which they seek to prevent that.
4) It was a serious attempt to seize or retain power. As more has emerged about the attack on the Capitol, it begins to look more serious and less like right-wing cosplay. Particularly disturbing is evidence of some level of plotting, planning, collusion or direction from people in authority. The President organised the rally, spoke at it, encouraged and directed it. He appeared to have organised the lack of security to ensure that the demo had a good chance of getting inside the Capitol and that when inside they would not be stopped or removed in a hurry. Trump had ‘swapped out military personnel’ in the Pentagon back in November while he continued to deny the election result. These loyalists then loyally refused to send in troops against the President’s mob. Trump, his family and supporters then organised a watch party to cheer on the crowd they had summoned in the process of trying to capture, injure or kill members of Congress and possibly the also the Vice-President. Afterwards Trump celebrated the day’s events, telling his supporters “remember this day forever!”
As well as a degree of collusion from the police, the demonstration appears to have been co-ordinated to some degree with sympathetic lawmakers inside the Congress: 139 Representatives and 8 Senators voted against verifying Biden even after the mob had invaded their place of work. Also there are reports and concerns that some Republican legislators might have directly assisted the insurgents or been passing information to them. Some Republicans had been taking Trump supporters on guided tours of the building in the days leading up to the attack, which may explain some of the more focussed insurgents knowing where to go within the building. Especially black members of the legislature believe that they were deliberately targeted. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn says rioters knew where to find him in the building – information that would not be widely known – and all the panic buttons in black Democrat Ayanna Pressley’s office had been somehow ripped out prior to the attack.
It appears that Trump had initially pressured Pence to engineer a coup and then turned on him when he refused. Thus the main aim of the rioters seems to have been to pressure or terrify wavering Republicans and Mike Pence in particular to refuse to certify Joe Biden as President. There is a real possibility that they could have managed that. Lots of Republicans are apparently genuinely terrified of the Trumpist mob that now constitutes their constituency. Lots of people inside the Capitol were reported saying they wanted to lynch Pence.
Some of the more serious aspects of the day got lost in reporting. Pipe bombs were placed at Democrat and Republican headquarters. More pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails and weaponry were recovered by police. There were clearly some more serious people there on the day using the crowd as cover:
“They walked through the Senate chamber with a sense of purpose. They were not dressed in silly costumes but kitted out in full paramilitary regalia: helmets, armor, camo, holsters with sidearms. At least one had a semi-automatic rifle and 11 Molotov cocktails”
The presence of the widely remarked upon ‘zip-tie guys’ could indicate that something similar was planned to the October militia plot to kidnap or kill the governor of Michigan:
“if any number of things had happened differently, the three people next in the line of succession for the presidency might have been face to face with those zip-tie guys. And then: Who knows.”https://www.truthorfiction.com/zip-ties-and-the-capitol-riots/
So however cack-handed it may have been in some respects, nevertheless it was an attempt by the serving President to use a mob of violent fascists to keep him in power by annulling or reversing normal democracy. So technically it wasn’t a coup – it was an autogolpe – a power grab by an elected leader who refuses to stand down and tries to suspend the law to stay in power. This was a desperate last attempt to stop what dozens of legal manoeuvres had already failed to do. But despite it being desperate and unlikely to succeed that doesn’t take away from it being a genuine attempt to violently overthrow the result of an election.
Of course, it was also absurd in some respects, because many of the people and what they believe are so ludicrous. But as has been pointed out by many – people laughed at Hitler too, and Mussolini. All these people have something absurd about them. But this doesn’t stop them also being dangerous. Looked at in that way the Klan were also pretty ludicrous LARPers dressing up in bedsheets and awarding themselves titles like the Grand Wizard, but that didn’t stop them from killing people.
5) The stunning thing about all of this is the complete collapse between ‘mainstream’ politics and far-right street politics. How out-and-out fascists can have widespread ‘mainstream’ support from a large chunk of the American population and also the political class. The far-right up to and including Nazis is integrated into the Republican Party on multiple levels. This is the main achievement and legacy of Trump, that will long outlive him:
“the right is realising it can’t control the frankensteins monster it has created”https://twitter.com/AntiFashGordon/status/1346934902781075456
So even if it was an unsuccessful coup – this shows how fascism happens. The fascists don’t storm in and take over from an entirely unwilling population. When fascism happens the people involved don’t think it’s fascism. It blurs into the mainstream – shifting the definition of what is the centre ground. When fascism happens it channels anger and aggrieved victimhood, narratives of betrayal. When it happens, the people involved think they are patriots, saving the nation from enemies within and without.
What now in the USA?
1) This is a beginning as well as an end. This is the end of Trump as President, but also the opening salvo in a new phase of the struggle. The far-right movement isn’t going away and the massive polarisation of the country isn’t going change quickly either. This was an empowering and galvanising event for the far-right. They showed their power and they had all the Senators and Representatives on the run. They had the police on the run. They’re not going to forget that in a hurry.
But the aftermath will see them take some knocks. Those who stormed the Capitol are going to suffer some repercussions from last week’s events – jail time, trials, lost jobs etc. Amusingly, many of them seem genuinely shocked that this can happen. The fallout from this will see some realignment and restructuring in the far-right and also in its relationship to the Republican Party. Trump has brought to birth a huge far-right movement where the minority politics of the extreme far-right have now infected a vast constituency of ‘normal’ Republicans. That genie is not going back in the bottle. There is now a struggle over what will happen to all the disappointed Q-believers and Trumpists who were trusting ‘The Plan’. How will they cope as their belief system falls apart? Rather than admit that you were mistaken, one answer is to go even further to the right. The more extreme neo-Nazi groups are hoping to hoover them up to swell their ranks. It is a HUGE constituency of Trumpists, even if only a small fraction of them go even further to the right that will be a very large influx of people into armed militant fascist groups.
Although it’s right to be aware of the risk from an angry defeated far-right, and although they will use their status as the ‘resistance’ to the Woke Tyranny of Joe Biden to recruit and to build, it is still important to remember that they will be recruiting and building a whole lot less than if they had won. And for sure an angry and defeated far-right is dangerous, but a whole lot less so than an angry and victorious far-right. Trump LOST and their coup FAILED. And that is much better and less scary than if either of them had succeeded.
2) Will Republicans disavow and somehow try and pivot away from Trumpism? They have all properly drunk the Kool-Aid over the last 4 years – there’s now almost no Republicans untainted by Trump. Significant numbers of Republicans voted for Trump’s lie even though they know he won’t be President anymore – they are looking at who can lead or take advantage of this constituency of angry deluded people in the future. But there are signs since the election and then increasingly since last week that more are willing to step away from him. They are trapped between wanting the votes of a support base that LOVES Trump and the out of control destabilising Frankenstein’s monster that that voting base represents. They are cowards and will go with whatever seems to best suit their self-interest. If they are to go against Trump, they have to try and do it without getting killed by their own constituents for being traitors. Whichever way the Republican Party jumps, the far right force will not go away. It will live on either with Trump himself or with someone else trying ineffectively to fill his shoes.
3) Why didn’t it succeed? Trump just didn’t have enough forces on his side. The corporations, the military, the rich and powerful were not all backing him. In other coups, attempted coups and fascist takeovers throughout history we see that if the important, powerful people feel under threat then they will gamble on a fascist of some form to save them from that threat. There isn’t a giant crisis of American capital on that scale that would necessitate that. The military and the capitalists and the ruling class are not seeing Trump as the saviour of American capitalism. Probably more likely they are seeing him as a destabilising threat to American capitalism. Rupert Murdoch switched sides, the National Association of Manufacturers called for him to be deposed by Pence and a growing list of major corporations have pulled their donations to the Republican Party and cut their ties with Trump’s businesses.
What does this mean for us in the UK?
We have a strange divided relationship to things in the USA. On one level it often feels like we live in the USA – especially thanks to social media we can follow things in real time as they happen and American news generally features as prominently in our media as British news. It’s sometimes an effort to remember we don’t live there too. But clearly the context is very different here.
In a way we pioneered all this shit. Brexit paved the way for Trump’s right wing populism. We all remember Farage going and promoting Trump before the election, playing Mr Brexit to stadiums of hooting Trumpists. Then the Tories hitched themselves progressively to their own version of Brexit Trumpism, styling themselves as populists against the ‘liberal elite’ – the ‘activist lawyers’, ‘experts’, ‘enemy of people’ judges and wishy washy Remoaners who stand up for such things as international law, human rights and civil liberties. Proroguing parliament was a classic Trump move, similarly blithely breaking international law, attacking lawyers and judges who get in the way of ‘the will of the people’ and threatening to send in gunboats against refugees in dinghies.
It’s often said that we get the same things as America but on a time delay – what happens there will happen here 6 months later. Obviously it’s not quite as simple as that. The same process has happened here over the last 4 years as in America though not as extreme – the merging of elements of the far-right and the mainstream right. However, we’re not just going to get a repetition of Trumpist insurrection. Here there is no need. We already have the government the far-right wanted, albeit not quite as nod-and-wink racist as Trump. In some ways we are in the reverse situation to the USA. Post-Trump, the main far-right threat over there is now going to be from the extra-parliamentary mob who think the election was stolen from them and may well switch to more murderous insurrectionary tactics. Here we still have 4 more years at least of Boris Brexit Priti Patel migrant-bashing shit. We need to be able to stand up against the government’s populist agenda and be prepared to resist the far-right when they emerge in support of it or try and push it to live up to the nationalist re-birth they were hoping for.
The street far-right
We don’t have militias with semi-automatic weapons here – we have ‘football lads’ with pint glasses. But we are also just as capable of generating murderous far-right terror attacks, which we’ve seen in connection with Brexit more than once, including recently in September whether was an attempt to murder the ‘lefty lawyers’ targeted by Priti Patel for stopping the government deporting people at will.
The street mobilising far-right have been a bit quiet of late, since they won Brexit in the 2019 election and then the COVID lockdown put a lot of things on hold. The British far-right haven’t hitched themselves to COVID denialist conspiracies as much as in the US. In general the far-right here seem less keen on the full-on batshit conspiracy stuff than in the USA – QAnon has also only had a minority impact over here. So both these potential growth areas have not been working for them.
Another reason they have been a bit quiet is that de-platforming from social media companies has affected their ability to organise. Especially the de-platforming of key figures like Tommy Robinson. Mr Yaxley-Lennon has lost almost all of his social media outlets. He was the one figure who had the ability to mobilise large numbers almost at the drop of a hat, but that’s a lot harder without Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Personally also he has also been keeping his head down due to troubles of his own – the impending court case being brought against him, could see him (hopefully) financially ruined. He bailed on the statue-defending mob he summoned up back in June and the launch of attempted new organisation Hearts of Oak in August. He tried running off to Spain in July and was claiming at one point that he would be seeking asylum in Spain as some sort of political refugee until it all unravelled.
The last sizeable showings of far-right people on the streets were the protests in Dover in September in response to the media panic over channel-crossing migrants and the ‘statue defenders’ taking to the streets at the height of the BLM protests in the summer. There was also some successful racist ‘community’ organising against migrants in Penally and elsewhere, including the Britain First hotel invasions. The attempted new force on the far-right, Patriotic Alternative, got off to a rocky start as it was infiltrated by antifascists from the beginning who then ruined its promotional banner stunt in August and an attempted launch event in October.
The general political climate to date has been favourable to the far-right – it has seemed like xenophobic nationalism was flavour of the month across the world. A really large amount of this feeling was due to the existence of Donald Trump as President. So a really big question is to what extent the changes in America will filter out into the world – will it feel like the tide has turned and the far-right are on the back foot? The blowback and reaction against the Capitol attack is already achieving some of this – Parler and 8kun now appear to be gone. Twitter and Facebook have purged tens of thousands of far-right and conspiracist accounts.
But there is still large latent support for the far-right if they can tap into it – the “Free Tommy” mobs and the Brexit mobs haven’t gone anywhere – they’re all still out there. But the far-right is demobilised and unorganised. So, although the ‘statue defenders’ all feels like a million years ago in some ways, it’s worth remembering that the far-right more or less spontaneously organised large demonstrations in towns and cities across the country at very short notice, where the they managed to drag in sizeable numbers of ‘soft support’ around an emotive issue. In London the protests drew up to 5000 people and were very violent, managing to deter both BLM and antifascists from countering them (although they were later chased off the streets by anti-racists). So despite the seeming quietness from the DFLA et al, all it needs is the right excuse, reason or target to gather an unmanageably large number of them seemingly ‘out of the blue’ that we will then have no idea how to confront.
What we need to do
Antifascists were right. Liberals ignored their warnings and accused them of being “just as bad” as the fascists – another face of the same violent ‘extremism’. They said fascists had a free speech right to propagandise, recruit and organise. They said if we all just ignored the Nazis they would go away. They said confrontation was what they wanted, so don’t give it to them. Well, it turns out the antifascists were right. As if it wasn’t already obvious, it now becomes rather hard to deny. When Trump is organising a fascist mob to overthrow an election result to keep himself in power, even liberals are now coming round to the idea that it might be legitimate to describe him as a fascist and that the far-right might be some form of threat.
So what are the key lessons if we listen to what the antifascists were saying?
1) You need to stop the fascists before they can’t be stopped. It’s no good waiting until they are storming Parliament. Stop the far-right while it is still small and can be crushed.
2) You can’t rely on the state and the cops to defend you from the far-right. Contra Paul Mason, the most important thing in anti-fascism is not to “maintain the state’s monopoly of coercive force”. Firstly, there’s every chance the state and the cops will turn out to support the far-right. Secondly, the cops and all the state agencies of counter-terrorism are part of the problem – they are all part of maintaining racialised capitalism, infiltrating and destroying the left and racial justice movements. Any extra powers you grant them will most likely be used against antiracists and the left first.
3) You need mass community self-defence against the fascists. It is the only effective thing at stopping them on the streets. But, more than that, it also addresses the wider causes of the rise of fascism. Mass community organisation is effective at changing opinion, showing the majority do not support the far-right and at building movements for racial and economic justice, solidarity and empowerment to tackle the root causes of the far-right. Mass community organisation does not just disempower the far-right, just as importantly it empowers us and builds long term community resilience.
4) We need to police the line keeping the far-right out of mainstream. Trumpism and what happened at the Capitol is a warning to beware of the complete collapse between the mainstream and the far-right. It’s very hard to roll it back once it has occurred. Antifascism sometime fulfils a role of policing the boundaries, watching the edges, maintaining a line of what is ‘normal’ in society and what crosses that line and therefore must be treated and regarded differently. This role is not without problems, but nevertheless we must be very aware of the danger of this sort of mainstreaming. It appears that conspiracism is one of the key mechanisms by which this bypassing of the boundaries has occurred. Conspiracies often escape normal left-right categorisation and therefore become a ‘greyzone’ where people’s politics can swiftly transition, becoming a sort of pipeline to the far-right. We have yet to develop any really good answer to this threat.
And finally… We need to learn that antifascist small group tactics are only good when you are fighting small groups. For a long time antifascism was a job of small minorities confronting small minorities. Tactics were developed for keeping small radicalised groupuscules in check. Once the far-right has grown beyond that stage, you need to be able to adopt new tactics and make new alliances, without necessarily dropping the old tactics. And if they manage to infiltrate the mainstream, you need to be able to adopt new tactics again. We need to be able to oppose Brexit Tory nationalism, try and police the lines keeping the far-right out of mainstream, develop tactics to combat conspiracism and keep a lid on the street-based far-right all at the same time.