The political polarization which has taken place in the U.S. over the past decade is continuing to deepen. On balance, the majority of society has been moving to the left – just one example is Black Lives Matter this summer becoming the largest ever social movement in the country’s history, and the significant increase in anti-racist consciousness which accompanied it. It’s also reflected in majority support for Medicare for All and the highest level of support for unions in decades.
But the other side of this polarization is the process of reactionary ideas taking root in a section of society, with a much smaller but growing section being pulled toward the far right. The forces of the far right in the U.S. are larger, more visible, and more confident than they have been in many decades and, as the system plunges deeper into crisis, if no left alternative is built, the far right is poised to grow even more. The million-dollar question is how can we stop this from happening.
How We Got Here: Trump Both a Cause and Effect
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Trump’s frequent use of racist rhetoric and his regular refusal to condemn right-wing violence has emboldened and given cover to dangerous white nationalist and right-wing forces. But the story didn’t start here. The basis for right-wing and even far-right ideas wasn’t born with Trump’s election in 2016. A cocktail of conditions had been brewing underneath the surface during the Obama/Biden years and before which needs to be honestly reviewed in order to fully understand how we got here.
Despite their progressive facade of “hope and change,” Obama and Biden ruled for eight years with a corporate agenda. The post-2008 “recovery” they oversaw was only for the super-rich and corporations, while the working-class majority got poorer and sunk deeper into debt. The bailout of the big banks while millions of ordinary people got foreclosed on was the key factor that gave rise to the Tea Party. The shameless continuation of war in the Middle East under the guise of “anti-terrorism” contributed to growing Islamaphobia. The escalation of deportations to a higher level than any presidency in history helped foment xeonophobic ideas, giving a recruiting ground and legitimacy to the anti-immigrant right.
It was precisely the Democratic Party’s failure to meet the needs of working and middle-class people that allowed Trump to demagogically appeal to millions of voters whose living standards had been falling for years. He seized on the anger at a corrupt, out-of-touch political establishment with cynical appeals to national pride, scapegoating immigrants, blatant misogyny, and pledges to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Of course there was one candidate in 2016, Bernie Sanders, who could have countered Trump with an anti-establishment campaign from the left and a message of working-class unity, rejecting all appeals to racism and sexism. But in doing everything in their power to stop him in the primaries, the DNC showed they preferred four years of Trump to four years of Bernie, a wish which, unfortunately for the rest of us, they were granted.
Once in office, Trump further catalyzed the growth of the far right. After the August 2017 “Unite the Right” protests in Charlottesville, Virginia and the violent hit-and-run murder of a counter-protester by a self-proclaimed neo-nazi, Trump said there were “good people on both sides.” One white nationalist website described Trump’s remarks as “really, really good.” More recently, Trump refused to condemn the murder of two BLM protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin by 17-year old white supremacist Kyle Rittenhouse. Astonishingly, Donald Trump Jr., a close political advisor to his father, remarked, “We all do stupid things at 17.”
In some cities across the country, heavily armed, self-styled militias of white nationalists patrol BLM and anti-mask protests. Trump has spun a narrative that these right-wing vigilantes are responding to the terror brought on by the “radical left” and Antifa, backing up his “law and order” campaign message. And now, Trump is setting himself up to contest the election results as illegitimate and rigged should he lose, even hinting that he might refuse to leave the White House.
All of this and more has millions of people fearfully wondering, what is happening in this country? Are we witnessing a slide into fascism like Germany in the 1930s? How can we stop the further growth of the far right?
What is Fascism and Germany in the 1930s
Definitions of fascism in the media and popular consciousness vary greatly. Oftentimes these definitions take the form of superficial psychological diagnoses focusing on the character traits of leaders. Sometimes people use fascism as an epithet to describe conservative politicians they don’t like, such as the trend in the early 2000s of calling George W. Bush a fascist. Now, some are wondering if Bush will endorse Joe Biden! But with a president now who refuses to condemn white-nationalist violence and claims the elections will only be legitimate if he’s the winner, the need for a serious discussion on the nature of fascism, and a historical look at situations like the 1930s in Germany, is increasingly important.
Germany had a powerful labor movement and two mass working-class political parties, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Communists (KPD). There had been revolutionary upheavals after World War I with workers inspired by the Russian Revolution. However, these tragically ended in failure. The massive world economic crisis which began in 1929 only got worse in 1931 leading to mass unemployment.
Fearing that this time the working class would succeed in ending capitalism, sections of the ruling class turned to Hitler’s Nazis and began funding them. The Nazis had been a very weak force through most of the ‘20s but the failure of the Socialists and Communists to show a clear way out of the crisis led desperate sections of the ruined middle class and unemployed to turn to them.
Fascism in Germany became a rapidly growing mass movement based on fury at the worsening conditions and a redirecting of blame for those problems onto minorities such as the Jews. The Nazis committed acts of violence and terror on left-wing protests, strikes, union and socialist meetings, and minority groups. The number of big businessmen and other sections of the German ruling class giving funding and support to the Nazi Party increased dramatically, seeing them as the most reliable way to stop the threat of revolution.
But even at this stage, if the Communists and Socialists, with millions of supporters and even armed detachments, had united in decisive action they could have begun pushing the fascists off the streets. But to really defeat this menace would have meant going on the offensive against the diseased capitalist system which bred fascism, with a program to end unemployment and poverty. By contrast, British socialists, trade unionists and Jewish workers acted decisively to check the country’s embryonic fascist movement in the Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End in 1936. A strong approach early helped ensure the far right in Britain never grew into a truly mass movement like in Germany or Italy.
The historic failure of the left’s leadership in Germany and especially that of the KPD to act decisively at this juncture opened the door to the Nazis taking power even though they never even won a majority of the vote. Once in office, the Nazis moved rapidly to smash the unions and the left parties. This is precisely the role that fascism has historically played: a mass social movement utilized by the ruling class when their system is under serious threat, to smash the labor movement and organizations of the working class, and ensure the survival of capitalism.
Is the U.S. Becoming 1930s Germany?
Some similarities to this situation can be found in the U.S. today. We are in the very early stages of a deep global depression, certainly the worst since the Great Depression with the potential even to surpass it. There is an extreme political polarization with fewer and fewer people satisfied with the status quo. Among a growing section of the working class and youth, there is a gravitation toward left-wing and socialist ideas while a section of the white middle class and working class are being pulled further right, with one example being the growing popularity of the far right QAnon conspiracy theory.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the number of white nationalist groups in the U.S. rose 55% from 100 in 2017 to 155 in 2019, with an accompanying rise in white nationalist violence. In 2018, a self-proclaimed neo-nazi shot up the Tree of Life Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and injuring more. In 2019, another white nationalist shot 46 people, killing 23, in a Walmart in a Latino neighborhood in El Paso, Texas. Armed right-wing militias have shown up to dozens of Black Lives Matter protests across the country. In Michigan, early on in the wave of anti-lockdown protests, an armed militia stood guard outside a barbershop to prevent the police from enforcing the lockdown and making it close. There was also the crazed, rich, and racist St. Louis couple who “defended ” their home with assault rifles as a BLM protest marched. Shortly after, they were invited to be featured speakers at the Republcian National Convention. It has also become clear that the far right has infiltrated many police forces around the country.
These are all extremely dangerous developments which point to a deeper process at work, but there are also important differences to the situation today than in the leadup to fascist takeovers of the past.
Historically, fascism has only come about with the blessing of a wide section of the ruling class as a last resort. The threat of imminent socialist revolution simply does not exist today in the U.S. or other major capitalist countries, though this can change in the coming years in the context of the deepening economic and social crisis of capitalism. The big majority of the ruling class believes that the situation is still salvageable through regular “democratic” norms, which have served the U.S. ruling class extremely well up to this point.
The far right today in the U.S. is a long ways away from the two million strong, highly organized Nazi Party, or even the Ku Klux Klan in its heyday in the early 1920s with an estimated membership in 1924 of three to six million when the total U.S. population was 124 million. This is not to downplay the threat that even the currently small forces, historically speaking, of the far right represent but to say that now is the time to build a mass working-class movement that can decisively push back the far right before they grow into an even bigger force.
The Democrats’ Record in Fighting Trump and the Right
The morning after Trump was elected, Socialist Alternative released a statement analyzing how Trump’s victory was possible and what would be necessary to build an effective resistance movement. Among other points, we wrote, “We must start today to build a genuine political alternative for the 99% against both corporate dominated parties and the right so that in 2020 we will not go through this disaster again.”
Unfortunately, a real left alternative to the Democrats has not been built. Blame for this lies in no small part at the feet of Bernie Sanders who, both in 2016 and 2020, refused to decisively break from the pro-corporate leadership of the Democratic Party despite their relentless efforts to block both his campaigns. The need for a new party to the left of the Democrats can be seen in the Democrats’ utter failure to stop Trump coming to power, effectively resist his agenda once in office, or prevent the emergence of a more serious threat on the far right.
After the violence in Charlottesville, emboldened far right organizations called over 60 rallies in dozens of states. But after 40,000 people counter-protested a rally of the far right in Boston, the overwhelming majority of these rallies were cancelled. Of course, this victory in temporarily pushing back the far right was achieved with zero thanks to the Democratic Party in Massachusetts. In fact, the day before this mass demonstration, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat, urged people to stay away from the rally. But cowardice has never defeated the far right.
Instead of mounting any real fight against Trump’s attacks over the last four years, the Democrats have instead obsessed over “Russiagate” and an entirely uninspiring impeachment trial. They were completely incapable of bringing an end to Trump’s government shutdown over the border wall in late 2018-early 2019. The shutdown only came to an end due to heroic workplace actions by TSA workers, air traffic controllers, and the threat of a mass strike by flight attendants.
In fact, all the instances in which Trump or the far right have been pushed back most decisively have one glaring thing in common: the Democrats were nowhere to be found and the winning strategy was mass action by the working class and young people.
Biden vs. Trump: Implications for the Far Right
Tens of millions of progressive-minded people are rightfully terrified of another four years of Trump and are willing to do whatever it takes to get him out. What are the Democrats providing as the answer to this desperation? Just about the most risky and uninspiring candidate imaginable to go up against Trump: Joe Biden. This is completely in line with their approach over the whole of the last four years.
While Trump is obviously a nightmare, we must also be clear that “Trumpism” will not magically vanish if Trump is forced to leave the Oval Office. Trumpism and the growth of the right is a symptom of a decaying system in crisis with no way out for the masses being shown.
Biden’s [lack of] ambition to resolve the misery faced by working people can be summed up by his famous statement that if he is elected president, “nothing will fundamentally change!” But this doesn’t mean a Biden presidency will bring any amount of “stability” or a “return to normal.” The crises of COVID-19 – which has been exacerbated tenfold by the private health care nightmare Biden refuses to address – the economic depression, systemic racism, climate change, and the resulting social unrest will all persist and escalate. The corporate rule of a Biden presidency will still very much fan the flame of capitalist crisis and the growth of the far right, and pave the way for more Trumps and worse Trumps in the years to come.
How do we stop this? Mass action by the working class, rebuilding a fighting labor movement, a left alternative to the Democrats in the form of a working-class party, and eventually the replacement of capitalism with socialism as the only permanent solution.
Socialist Alternative’s Strategy
Any strategy to stop the far right must include tactics in the short term for collective self defense. In situations of ongoing protests like we saw this summer in Minneapolis, Portland, or Kenosha, the starting point should be democratically run community meetings in working-class neighborhoods, especially communities of color, to discuss self defense. This should be in contrast to the “militant” actions of isolated anarchists and others who are not accountable to working class communities.
As we’ve seen in countless examples this summer, the police or National Guard cannot be relied upon to stop right-wing violence. In some cases like Kenosha, the police even gave heavily armed far right militia members like Kyle Rittenhouse a pass and open encouragement. Instead of relying on state forces to protect us from the far right, community meetings should elect groups of stewards to patrol protests and maintain safety. Historically, the labor movement has played a key role in activity like this, and unions today should bring back that legacy. In the event of a contested election with major protests, right-wing violence is possible and these sorts of tactics could be important.
But while well-organized self defense is crucial, the working class taking the initiative is the key to pushing back the far right. For example during the height of the rebellion in Minneapolis or the street clashes in Portland, a one day general strike of all workers in the city would have far more decisively pushed back state forces and the far right, and won actual demands for the movement if they were clearly laid out. When the working class truly flexes its muscles, much can be accomplished.
As we saw in Boston after Charlottesville, if the far right is met with massive and determined resistance, they can be pushed back for a whole period. But in the longer term, what’s desperately needed is a real strategy to put an end to the conditions that have allowed the far right to grow in the first place. Limiting ourselves to being just anti-Trump or against the far-right, as most establishment Democrats do, is fatal.
Whether it’s Donald Trump or Joe Biden who sits in the White House, we need an offensive program that can unite the widest possible layers of the working class against the right and for something better. This means our movements taking up a fighting program of Medicare for All, defunding the police by at least 50% to fund much needed social services, taxing the rich to fully fund public education, cancelling all student debt, 100% renewable energy by 2030 by taking the top energy and manufacturing corporations into democratic public ownership, and more. But we must have no illusions that a movement like this can be successfully built through the corporate-controlled Democratic Party. Their corporate backers will never allow it.
This means that regardless of who wins the election, one of the most urgent tasks for our movement is building a new party based around working people’s interests, not corporations. A working class party will be infinitely more effective than the Democrats in winning actual victories for workers and the planet, and fending off the far right. As they say, the best defense is a good offense. Such a party, if actually effective at winning victories, would be able to win over a section of Trump’s base that is less ideologically hardened but simply want something different and have fallen for Trump’s right populist rhetoric in the absence of something better. The Democrats are entirely incapable of peeling away any sizable section of Trump’s base.
A new party centered on the multiracial, multigender working class and youth, and rooted in social movements, can be used to win victories for the working class, prevent regressive change from the establishment, and organize against the far right. But at a certain point, what a working-class party fights for will run up against the limits of capitalism, where a tiny unfathomably rich minority controls everything.
German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg famously said in the middle of World War I, then the bloodiest conflict in human history, that society stood at the crossroads of “socialism or barbarism.” Just over 100 years later, from apocalyptic scenes of the West Coast wildfires to the U.S. president refusing to condemn white nationalist terror or promise to accept the results if he loses the election, this warning rings truer than ever. Capitalism is what gives rise to the far right, alongside the other social and economic problems we face. The only long-term solution is to end this crazy system altogether.