Trump, Political Violence and when is it right to punch Nazis?
Scottish Review, February 8th 2017
It is a season of heated tempers and invective across the political world. One that matches the widespread atmosphere of confusion and disorientation.
This is a mood in which there are winners and losers: people who crave this kind of moment, and many who lament the passing of the previous era. Mainstream political sentiment is uncomfortable and on the defensive. But radicals of the right and left celebrate this new found chaos as a once in a lifetime opportunity. Are they right to do so, or just showing an immaturity which is self-evident across most Western societies?
The rise of the populist right – Trump, Farage, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and more, has brought forth a similar angry spirit in parts of the left. It asks liberals and centre-leftists whose side are you on, invokes a new spirit of protest and resistance, and even considers (with the spectre of fascism threatening) whether, in certain circumstances, the use of violence is sometimes justified.
There is a déjà vu element in this. Parts of the ultra-left have been crying fascist and police state for as long as anyone can remember. Moreover, our present set of political circumstances seem to invoke in some only a need to re-run the slogans and clichés of the past: whether the 1980s, 1960s or 1930s.
The lexicon of political language is strained as it reaches new levels of hyperbole. Thus, to many Trump is a fascist and for many, calling Trump a fascist, some kind of displacement activity which makes the labeller feel better. Sadly, it doesn’t do very much productively, and there is a law of diminishing returns of catcalling every authoritarian leader or movement you disagree with ‘fascist’.
For the record, Trump isn’t anywhere near to being a fascist, if one does the old-fashioned thing of defining the word. According to Robert O. Paxton in ‘The Anatomy of Fascism’ such an ism involves two central criteria to the present day: a belief in dehumanising others and those alien to your political creed and community; and political expansionism and conquest. Trump does invoke a xenophobic nationalism and the cult of the leader as strongman, but he isn’t proposing to abolish democracy yet.
He is a populist pick-and-mix opportunist authoritarian, making much up as he goes along. Hence, the unpredictability of the nature of his Presidency, and while he might not be a fascist, that doesn’t preclude some of the most odious alt-righters and actual fascists supporting Trump. Witness Breitbart, and Steve Barron, Trump’s chief strategist.
This brings us to the culture of protest. It is understandable that millions want to show their revulsion at Trump. All across the world huge numbers have taken to the streets – bringing out constituencies way beyond the usual suspects.
Yet, beyond the wit and humour of many anti-Trump protestors there is a worrying element of self-certainty and moral superiority. For a start, on the left there is the assumption that the Trump agenda has to be self-evidently completely wrong, rather than wrong in places, mistaken and misguided, but sometimes hitting the right issues: such as how working class people have lost out from globalisation.
Then there is the personalisation. With Trump the person this is unavoidable, but we have been here before with European sentiment patronising and not taking seriously at the outset the political projects of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Attacking Trump voters and their intelligences is indefensible. Talking of mass voter stupidity, how they have been conned, and worse, isn’t exactly a politics of persuasion. It doesn’t really focus on such essentials as how the Democrats win over voters, and are so bad at politics when, with their demographic advantages, they managed to lose two of the last five Presidential elections while winning the popular vote.
This touches on the idea of the left as a tribe, and a closed tribe at that – in the analysis of the writer Sue Goss in her book ‘Open Tribe’. The meaning of the slogan and song: ‘Which side are you on?’ isn’t meant as a welcoming, warm invitation. Instead, it is a demand and a call for people to stop dithering and make up their minds. And it usually involves the left at its worst matching fire with fire; the authoritarianism of the right with the authoritarianism of the left -from the Stalinism George Orwell saw in the Spanish Civil War to Arthur Scargill’s kamikaze tactics in the miners’ strike of 1984-85.
This leads on to the issue of political violence. Unless you are a pacifist there are occasions where violence is justified: the Spanish civil war, World War Two, the defence of North Vietnam against American aggression. But we have to be careful in this ground. For example, Scargill refused to condemn the violence used by striking miners, citing the state violence of the police. That is an example of the terrible politics of part of the left. There were clearly other choices which could be made then, something which wasn’t true in Spain in the 1930s or Vietnam in the 1960s.
Hannah Arendt wrote an entire book on the subject, ‘On Violence’ and she wrote that ‘Violence can always destroy power. Out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What never can grow out of it [violence] is power.’ She continued: ‘In a head-on clash between violence and power, the outcome is hardly in doubt’ and argued that violence ‘can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.’
Today’s left-wing protestors are frustrated and angry. Last week there was violence at University of California, Berkeley, in anticipation of a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Everything about the violence and damage done was wrong and ill-advised. It fed the importance of a marginal and self-promoting figure – as the story spread round the world.
There is a mood about. The question asked by Rory Scothorne of the Roch Winds Collective – ‘If you don’t think violence is a necessary part of anti-fascist politics then how exactly do you think the Nazis got beaten first time round? Petitions?’ -shows a lack of understanding of the conditions of when and where violence can be used, and by who and on whom. Similarly, websites which ask: ‘Can I Punch Nazis?’ (the answer given is Yes) show a basic immaturity. It is true that the grubby reality of everyday politics have proven spectacularly disappointing to most of the left, so it is so much easier to cry fascist, invoke fistfights and the legend of the Battle of Cable Street in 1936.
The last forty years have seen a consistently catastrophic politics from the left all across the rich world. Every approach tried has been wrong and insufficient. There has been the ultra-left posturing of pretend revolutionaries in the SWP and Militant which has only led to calamity and scandal. Then there is the academia identity politics of tortured English, impenetrable sentences and jargon which has culiminated in a cul-de-sac. And finally, there is the systematic bankruptcy of what was once called ‘the near-left’ of Blair, Clinton and Schroder, who lost all sense of reforming capitalism in a progressive direction and instead got into bed with the forces of reaction and privilege.
Forty years of such failure and retreat necessitate more than protest, resistance and marching – particularly if it us under a SWP placard given their basic lack of pluralism, humanity or humility. We have to protest, but we have to go back to political basics, about the nature of democracy and politics.
‘Which side are you on?’ implies that we know who ‘we’ are. That not only do we know who the bad guys are, we know who the good guys are. And it is as simple as that. All that is needed is incantation and mobilisation. It isn’t that straightforward.
What happens if it is unclear who the ‘we’ are? Who are the good guys in the picture, and why they have a good story? That’s what needs addressing. What is the nature of a left politics now in the UK, US and across the West? What kind of qualities does it invoke beyond hectoring and lecturing? Where, for example, is the role of imagination, humour and subversion in any such politics?
There are numerous examples throughout history of satire such as Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal ’ published in 1729 about Georgian Britain’s injustices which puts the case for the wealthy being allowed to eat the poor – as a comment on the age’s moral deficiencies. Moreover, the defeat of the alt-right and real fascists requires forensic examination at times – a point underlined by David Hare’s recent film ‘Denial’ about Holocaust denier David Irving and how he destroyed his own reputation bringing and losing a libel action against historian Deborah Lipstadt.
Namecalling will always be part of politics but letting it replace how to understand and defeat your opponents isn’t good tactics. As a result of last week Milo Yiannopoulos is now attempting to position himself as a victim of the censorious left. No such reinvention has been possible for David Irving. Freedom of speech, expression and exchange are fundamentals in a democracy and the odious views of reactionaryism need to be taken on and defeated in argument. Silencing, no platforming and simplistic sloganism merely plays into the hands of the objectionable right.
Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back just published by Freight Books, £9.99..