The country was in shock on April 27 when a gunman opened fire on congregants of the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in Poway, California during Passover services, killing one and injuring three. The shooting could have been much worse had his gun not malfunctioned after a few rounds. This tragedy came six months to the day after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, which killed eleven and injured seven. It also came a little over a month after shootings at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 51 and injured 49.
The growth of far-right terrorist attacks in the U.S. and internationally is part of a wider growth of far-right and white nationalist forces. This has been particularly pronounced in countries like Greece and Hungary where explicitly fascist parties have been able to receive up to 20% support in national elections. In the U.S. actual fascist groups like the Proud Boys and Identity Evropa have experienced a limited growth but the far right has a big presence on the internet. And while fascists are nowhere near building a significant mass movement, their increasing assertiveness poses a clear threat, as evidenced by the recent mass shootings.
The growth of the far-right’s presence has been concurrent with the emergence of right-wing populist politicians and parties across the world, most notably through the election of Donald Trump here in the U.S. Trump’s promotion of naked xenophobia and his capture of the Republican Party has pulled that party further to the right and helped create the space for the far right.
The Rise of Trump and Right-Wing Populism
The broader context behind the growth of right-wing populism globally and the support from a smaller layer for far-right, fascist, and semi-fascist ideas is the crisis of capitalism. In the U.S., the ferocious attack on the living standards of working people over decades, the embrace by the Democrats and Republicans alike of neoliberalism, combined with the retreat of the labor movement has meant that whole swathes of the American working class have been left to rot.
This was exacerbated by the 2007-2008 financial crisis and its aftermath. While Barack Obama initially raised hopes of overcoming racial division, instead his administration bailed out Wall Street while millions lost their jobs and homes. The failure of the leadership of the labor movement or any section of the Democrats to build resistance to these bipartisan attacks on working people opened the door to the Tea Party. The far right congregated around the edges of the Tea Party and used an overtly racist appeal against the first black president. This dangerous development was partially pushed back by the revolt of workers in Wisconsin against right-wing governor Scott Walker and then the Occupy movement of 2011.
Right-wing populists seek to exploit the genuine anger of working people at the situation they face, pointing to immigration, Islam, demographic change, and the breakdown of “family values” as the problem. This creates a narrative that gives people enemies to attack while ultimately defending the status quo. Donald Trump came to power on a promise to “drain the swamp” while packing his administration with the worst representatives of big business. As much as Trump may portray himself as an anti-establishment figure, he has actually delivered the goods for the establishment, from his tax plan to his anti-union attacks. This ultimately worsens the conditions that give rise to right-wing populist ideas.
In this situation, more extreme far-right forces are able to build a base of support. People who get riled up by Trump’s scapegoating of Muslims and immigrants, but frustrated by his inability to make things better, can start being pulled toward the hard right. The flowering of groups like the Proud Boys and Identity Evropa, and the “self-radicalization” of a new generation of far-right mass shooters, is the consequence of capitalism’s own reactionary scapegoating.
At the same time it is important not to exaggerate the scale or reach of these groups or their wider influence which a number of people on the left do. For instance, 60% of the U.S. population opposes Trump’s border wall, 70% opposes his attempt to suspend the immigration of Syrian refugees to the U.S., and 80% support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. What’s going on isn’t an overall rightward shift in society but a polarization, seeing the growth of more overt xenophobia as well as tens of millions expressing support for socialism.
Legitimizing the Far Right
Trump’s role as a pole of attraction for far-right, semi-fascist, and fascist forces began early. Trump famously hired Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of the “alt-right” Breitbart News, as his chief strategist for the first seven months of his administration. Trump has also gotten into trouble for re-tweeting comments from the neo-fascist group Britain First. Most notoriously, following the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, where neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr. murdered counter-protester Heather Heyer, Trump refused to condemn the rally, insisting there were “very fine people on both sides.”
This served to provide a veil of legitimacy for previously unacceptable forms of white nationalism to be expressed even within the ranks of the Republican party. Far-right candidates like Paul Nehlen, ran for congress in Wisconsin twice, on a slogan of “It’s OK to be white,” appeared on white-supremacist podcasts, and compiled a list of Jews who were allegedly attacking him. Despite being denounced by the official Republican Party, Nehlen managed to get 11.1% in the 2018 Republican primary and 15.9% in the 2016 Republican primary.
While Nehlen still represents the fringes of the Republican party, a softer form of far-right bigotry has gained respectability in the party, as seen in the case of figures like Corey Stewart and Representative Steve King (R-IA). Stewart narrowly lost the Virginia Republican gubernatorial primary in 2017 and won the Senatorial primary in 2018. He not only refused to condemn the Charlottesville fascist rampage, but he condemned fellow Republicans who did condemn it. He praised Nehlen as one of his “personal heroes” and, unlike Nehlen, had the active backing of the Trump administration in his primary challenges.
Steve King has a longer history of far-right politics, predating the rise of Trump, but he has become more legitimized by the Trump presidency. King falls short of identifying as a “white supremacist” but he also lamented that the term was now considered “offensive.” He has also promoted the “great replacement” theory, which holds that there is a plot to use immigration to carry out a “white genocide” in the west.
One feature of the 2018 midterm elections was that candidates with indirect links to the far-right, like Stewart and King, were able to achieve a certain amount of success. King won his election and Stewart received 41% of the vote. Explicit white nationalist candidates like Nehlen generally did badly, although not as badly as many would hope for.
Trump and Right-Wing Violence
In the case of the Christchurch Mosque shooting, the shooter held up Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” But the connection between Trump and far-right violence isn’t always as straightforward. The shooters at the Synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway both denounced Trump from the right, with the Pittsburgh shooter calling Trump a “globalist” and the Poway shooter calling him a “pro-Zionist traitor.”
One of the features of these far-right terrorist attacks is that they came from “self-radicalizing” individuals with no known history of political affiliation. None of the shooters had any direct connection with any established far-right or fascist groups in the U.S. or New Zealand. The Christchurch shooter gave donations to French and Austrian groups associated with the far-right “Identitarian Movement,” but had no direct affiliations. The Pittsburgh shooter made various comments in support of various “alt-right” organizations, but had no direct affiliation to any. And the Poway shooter’s main activism was in the evangelical Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
These circumstances are similar to those behind a number of recent attacks in the west carried out by self-described Islamic fundamentalists. Attacks like the Orlando shooting and the Nice truck attack from 2016, or the Strasbourg shooting in 2018, were claimed by ISIS. But, like the recent far-right attacks, these attacks weren’t centrally coordinated by any organization. Rather they were the product of “self-radicalizing” individuals, acting on their own, while being influenced by the wider right-wing Islamic fundamentalist milieu that ISIS grew out of. And trying to stop attacks like these just by cracking down on existing organizations will prove ineffective.
Despite the similarities, U.S. law enforcement, including at federal level has a striking unwillingness to describe white-nationalist attacks as “terrorism.” This designation is reserved for attacks carried out by those claiming to represent ISIS. Meanwhile Trump falsely claims that hordes of terrorists are coming across the Southern border while ignoring the home-grown terrorists in our midst.
The radicalization of the individuals involved in the recent right-wing terrorist attacks was connected to the spread of far-right ideas on social media. All three shooters were active on the 4chan and 8chan message boards which also drove the right-wing, anti-feminist #Gamergate campaign. The Christchurch shooter live-streamed his shooting and the Poway shooter attempted to livestream his. The Pittsburgh shooter announced his plans on the social network Gab shortly before the attack. During the livestream of the Christchurch shooting, the shooter said to the camera, “remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie,” referring to the YouTube personality Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, who built up a far-right following by engaging in “ironic” racist pranks like paying people to dance around with signs reading “Death to all Jews.”
Kjellberg himself is not a fascist. He does support more mainstream conservative commentators like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson, but most of his content and following is apolitical. But his tendency to engage in “ironic” racism has allowed him to build up a following among unironic racists who see him as taking a stand against “social justice warriors.” As with the far-right forces capitalizing on Trump’s right-wing populism, this subset of his fanbase took on a life of its own.
Rather than blaming Trump as an individual for the rise of the far right, it’s more accurate to say that the rise of Trump and the rise of the far right are both attributable to the same material forces. The right-wing populism of Trump and the fascist and semi-fascist ideas motivating the recent attacks both thrive on making scapegoats out of Jews, Muslims, immigrants, minorities and other oppressed groups.
Change the System!
The Democratic Party has reacted with horror at the far-right terror attacks from Charlottesville to the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue. Joe Biden brought up the murder of Heather Heyer in his campaign launch video, albeit without consulting Heyer’s family. However, the Democratic Party provides no way forward in taking on the rise of the far-right. They have been willing in the past to engage in their own bigoted scapegoating when it suits them. For instance, in 2006, Biden argued that a border fence was needed to stop the “tons” of drugs that were “all coming up through corrupt Mexico.”
Even when not engaging in the direct scapegoating that foments the far-right, the Democratic Party establishment has overseen the neoliberal assault on the working class that has helped such far-right appeals to gain a hearing in the first place.
To take on the far-right we need mass mobilization of the working class. The response in Boston to the Charlottesville massacre – a demonstration of over 40,000 on August 19, 2017 that shut down and drowned out an alt-right “free speech” rally – pushed the far-right back into the internet forums for a period. Unions and anti-racist organizations have a critical role to play in mobilizing the broadest forces possible against the far right and their hate-filled agenda. We need to build mass movements of working and oppressed people, to unite in the streets, on campuses, and in our workplaces against racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism.
But the working class in action can accomplish more than just beating back the far-right. They can take on the conditions that allow the far-right to grow. We need to build a movement that can fight for union rights, Medicare for all, a $15 an hour minimum wage, and a Green New Deal for working people. We need to build an independent working-class party that can take on attacks from the Democratic and Republican parties alike. Ultimately we need to take on the capitalist system itself, and establish a socialist system, where the economy is run democratically in the interests of all. We need to abolish the capitalist system that allows far-right terror to fester.