7 – An open letter to the Antifa

By Arlie Russell Hochschild

We are in the midst of a crisis: signs are appearing of a rise in the US of white supremacy and fascism. I’m old enough to have seen white supremacist violence before. I was a civil rights worker in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964. In June of that summer, three of my fellow workers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were murdered by Klansmen and, over the course of the summer, dozens more were badly beaten. Since the lives of those three, and, over the years, many others, ended through right wing violence, some called for left wing violence in response. But leaders with greater foresight prevailed and a powerful civil rights movement changed the nation, rewrote its laws, and enfranchised millions of African Americans who previously had never been able to vote. While much remains to be done, the movement itself was extraordinary, and while various strategies were pursued, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, it was predominantly non-violent.

I recently spent five years getting to know, and write a book about, Tea Party enthusiasts in the heartland of the petrochemical industry in the deep South, people who came to believe in Donald Trump. I discovered that they felt themselves to be — and in many ways were — victims. Their wages are often stagnating or declining, many of their jobs have been automated or offshored, and the air they breathe and the water they drink are grossly polluted. The president cleverly offered them scapegoats for their sense of victimhood: Mexicans, Muslims, black Americans, the mainstream press, and the left. Like Hitler and plenty of other demagogues, Trump understood that appealing to that sense of victimhood was his path to power. And at every step of the way, Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Rush Limbaugh and others supplied the sound bites and images to reinforce this dark worldview.

When, in a series of skirmishes which broke out earlier this year on and around the U.C. Berkeley campus, an Antifa activist beat an older man wearing in a Trump T-shirt, leaving blood streaming down his face, it was the greatest possible gift to Fox News, and to the Trump/Fox narrative of a victimized right. Who might this anonymous man in the Trump T- shirt be? Who knows, maybe he was one of the estimated six to eight million who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but voted for Trump in 2016. Or maybe he was one the one out of four — other studies say one out of three — white high school-educated voters who say they would have voted for Bernie Sanders had he won the Democratic Party nomination, but when Sanders lost, voted for Donald Trump instead. 46 percent of American voters voted for Trump and they’re not all “deplorable.” If we treat them as people to be attacked and beaten, we’re treating them as contemptuously as did Hillary Clinton when she used that word. But what they are is caught up in a narrative of victimhood and the search for people and causes to blame.

To bash, punch, or kick a man, to smash a window or light a fire is to make the greatest possible gift to Fox News and to Donald Trump and his unsavory brew of KKK members, neo-Nazis and others whose appeal is based on the narrative of victimhood. When we make such people victims of violence, we reinforce that narrative. We rob the movement against racism and fascism of the high ground through which the civil rights movement transformed America. Since we are indeed facing forces that include outright fascists, it’s worth looking closely at how the greatest fascist of them all, Adolf Hitler, came to power. How did he end up as chancellor of Germany in 1933, when, five years earlier, the Nazi Party won less than 3% of the vote? There were many factors, but an absolutely crucial one was that the Nazis were brilliantly successful in provoking the German left into violent street-fighting. Dozens of people were killed on both sides. Hitler was able to appeal to his followers that they were victims of the left, and to the public at large that he would restore order. 

At Charlottesville, of course, the most deadly violence came from the right. Nonetheless, because Fox News and other outlets were able to show some pushing and shoving from anti-racist protesters, surveys show that more Americans thought the fault lay mainly with the “left” or with “both sides” than thought the fault lay with the alt-right. This was a gift to the alt-right. Let that not happen again. Should we show opposition to the forces of racism and white supremacy that we see around us? Of course! There is much to do. Let’s all get busy. Be relentless — but not through violence.

Arlie Hochschild is the author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.