Before jackboots recruit them, offer a better way

“I’ve gotten so numb to all of this,” my friend wrote after messaging me a photo of a group of agitators flying Nazi flags outside of Disney World in Florida.

I responded that I understood, but wrote there was little I could do about what was happening in Florida. Instead, I said, I’ve chosen to focus less on instances of right-wing aggression outside my sphere of influence and will spend more time worrying about the places where I can make a difference. I am not dismissing the concern of increasingly brazen fascists marching in the streets; it is concerning. But where I have no influence, I am not likely to be heard. Where I have a voice is in my own community, in my own home.

While it is important to document the bad actors, especially when they tell us their plans, who they support, who supports them and why that support has grown, it is not my calling to track all of them. Frankly, obsessively following every instance of political theater or violence does not lend itself to mental health.

There are people on whom the calling to catalog all such evils falls — and it is important — but I am not one of them. I know those actors are out there, that they are active, and that they represent a threat to the domestic peace. I don’t feel like I need to know every instance of their appearance in detail to know that they are growing in number and growing bolder with every day. It has been demonstrated; the hour is long past when the world should have started believing the demonstration.

I remember the militia movements of the 1990s, their racial paranoia, and their willingness to co-opt any grievance in an attempt to implement their visions. The mistake many people made was believing that these ideologies disappeared just because the country was distracted by two wars after the turn of the century. I have been paying attention to the increasing amount of violence that can be linked to right-wing motivations throughout my country over the last decade, and I understand that they are a chain of related incidents, even when they appear isolated. I have read the analysis of what is driving hate groups, how they have often decentralized, and I understand that it has been festering for a long time. It is, to use a word that makes some people twitch, “systemic.”

The greater danger in my mind, however, is that with the apparent resurgence of these movements,  their appearance will serve as a foil for people who in large part agree with their ideology but instead lean toward electoral respectability. I fear that in these days the clown actors — the brazen Nazis, the overt Klansmen — serve as a point of distraction, of theater, for people who wear suits to espouse similar ideologies while dismissing the accusation of being one and the same simply because they don’t have Third Reich armbands or openly use the same slurs. In the end, there is no space between the political ideologies of a street-level jackboot and a politician in a power tie when both call for extrajudicial killings at the border.

So where is my voice in this? How can I, a person of little influence, contend against the spirits of the age?

I take to heart the advice I recently read online when the Internet was discussing the song “Rich Men of North Richmond” ad nauseum : there’s a whole class of people who are angry, broken and bitter at the system and are only missing the point of why things have turned out the way they have by a matter of percentages. The song stands at that crossroads, and how their ideology develops from there will depend on who speaks most persuasively to them.

Instead of writing those people off, regular working people who have already had the scales fall from their eyes have an opportunity to reach those angry individuals and point out that it’s not the poor, the people of color, or any other minority we’re seeing targeted today that is the source of their misery. Their malaise — as the song starts to realize but then forgets —  is much more likely tied to our increasingly exploitative economic system and the political machine that has allowed and encouraged it; the fact that our political matrix has a program that keeps the poorest from starving is not the poor’s fault, especially when one considers that the poor are more often than not working but still need help with food.

Right-wing movements find their greatest success in forging a group identity. So if things are going to fall to matters of us versus them, the answer to an authoritarian’s appeal is to demonstrate that the “us” one should identify with is not their chosen in-group but instead is everyone who is a medical emergency or two away from bankruptcy. The powers that be, those who would benefit most from the chaos of an incipient fascist movement, need people too broke, too close to hunger and too disorganized to point the finger in the right direction. The system is asking people to make bricks without hay, and those who understand have the extra duty to help their fellow brickmakers understand that it is not the fault of the people the taskmasters (or other taskmasters) have already broken.

I am not delusional enough to believe that such appeals are going to convert every person whose ideology is stained by deep-seated racism, ideologies of racial superiority, or resentment toward any or all minorities of whatever flavor.

I do believe, however, that when offered a clear-eyed alternative, many people who would be persuaded to join right-wing absolutist movements can be “radicalized” in the other direction — a direction that offers mutual aid to community members in need; a direction that finds solidarity with people beyond race, religion or identitarian politics; and a direction that works at the personal and community level to create a system that values people first and foremost — before property, before profit and before power.

And — without falling prey to utopianism — I believe that those same people can help develop local, sustainable systems of support for one another, finding ways of helping others get food, housing, medical care and mental support in the face of increased systemic pressure. Humanity longs for a community deeper than can be found with an emergency GoFundMe, and the COVID pandemic showed us that not only do we need to build those communities, but that we need to build them quickly.

Fascist movements succeed in part by offering their followers a security they will never deliver. That is why alternatives rooted in solidarity, if they are to succeed, will have to be more than a performative ideology.

I am not calling for quietism. Instead, I am saying that for many of us, the day-to-day battle against the lies that would pit us against one another is not fought in street demonstrations. Instead, it is fought by finding those like us who are missing the point by degrees, helping them and giving them the tools they need — physical, mental and spiritual — to offer others like them a better way. (And for some, the call is to take to the streets.)

The answer to movements that would seek to dehumanize others is not to bandy around a simple, disembodied concept of “love.” It is instead to live a life that demonstrates the value of others, that supports them and that realizes that we, too, are supported by them.

Because in the end, if we don’t have each other, we don’t really have anything, anyway.

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