Fascism, Susan Sontag said, can fascinate. I know. I felt the feeling kick in not long ago and it wasn’t a comforting experience. And that episode brought me back to a day when fascism did more than fascinate me.
My recent encounter occurred in my home city of Charlottesville, Virginia, at the Unite the Right rally of August 12th, now renowned and reviled across America.
You know the story: preppy looking boys wearing chinos, white polo shirts and Sieg Heil haircuts; gray whiskered infantrymen of the Old South; crackpot media jockeys like Baked Alaska and Christopher Cantwell with their admirers in tow: “Hail Cantwell” kids said to buck their man up when he got tear-gassed at Emancipation Park, “Heil Cantwell.” There were black-shirted members of the Traditionalist Worker Party; straight-up Nazis; Klansmen marching with the former grand dragon, David Duke; guys with homemade shields covered with weird runes, wearing plastic helmets, and ready to rumble; screaming dudes in screaming-red MAGA hats. I remembered Yeats’s description of barbarian hordes on the move: “On their own feet they came, or on shipboard, / Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule back, / Old civilisations put to the sword.”
It may have been the strength of their massed, unapologetic rage that fascinated me. The world was escaping from them. The transformation of America from a white-dominated society to a multi-ethnic nation is a done deal. They are on history’s losing side. But still, they raged on.
This movement toward a more varied and complex America is one that I applaud. As a Democrat who shares Walt Whitman’s vision, I want an America that’s hospitable to more sorts of people, more ways of life.
Yet my encounter with the neo-fascists took me back in time.
I was 21 and working on the security crew at a rock show—the Allman Brothers Band was playing that night. It was my first day on the job. The concert venue was the now demolished Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey—a funky, crumbling 25,000-seater. There were at least a hundred guys on security—beefy guys, macho guys, guys with martial arts training. I wondered why so many. By late afternoon, I knew. The crowd was rowdy—drunk, stoned, zapped on LSD, PCP, MDA. Lots of people were trying to get in by hopping the turnstiles or scaling the lower parts of the stadium walls. I was on the crew at the front gate, where most of the action was. Every 15 minutes or so a street fight started, often between concertgoers, sometimes between concertgoers and security. I got pushed and shoved and smacked once in the head, but nothing serious. Other security guys were hurt, not badly hurt, but bleeding, bruised hurt.
Late in the afternoon, I heard yelling from 20 yards in front of me. I pushed my way through the crowd and saw two security men facing off four or five Jersey tough guys, who wanted to get into the show for free. Security guys came from all directions, and in a second the odds shifted—the Jersey tough guys melted away, all but one. We formed a circle around him and one of the security guys gave him a pop with a blackjack that sent him staggering. He fell. Another one landed a few kicks, another one kick more. The tough guy was on the ground and he was not moving.
I knew what I was doing. I was helping to create a circle that the cops and the concertgoers couldn’t see into so my newfound brothers on security could get their licks in. I was part of a cadre, semi-militarized. We wore the same dead-yellow T-shirts, with the benign words “Garden State Summer Music Fair” lettered across them. (Says Sontag: “Uniforms suggest fantasies of community, order, identity … competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence.”) Many of us were armed: clubs, sticks, brass knuckles. By the end of the show, I was wearing a construction helmet and carrying a four-foot iron pipe. As the afternoon became more violent we evolved into something like a paramilitary gang, protecting the concert promoter’s right to sell liberating music. I stood in that circle, knowing exactly what I was doing. I was appalled at myself—and thrilled.
I’d never been part of a uniformed gang doing evil under the auspices of doing good. It’s almost always evil to kick someone on the ground. It’s almost always evil to abet the guys who’re doing it. But we were doing good too, weren’t we? We were protecting the front gate from crashers. We were guaranteeing the promoter’s lawful right to make his dough.
I was satisfying two masters. I was satisfying the violent brute who’s usually chained in the basement, and I was satisfying the order-loving king on his brass throne, the one who says: Do your job; be responsible; do what’s right. Doing my job that day meant letting the beast off his chain. I didn’t jump in with a kick. When the Jersey tough guy staggered up and lurched away, I was relieved, but some part of me wouldn’t have minded seeing him get two or three pops more. I might have been willing to deliver one myself.
If protecting a rock show can summon these feelings in a young guy who was a little reckless but far from a criminal in the making, imagine what defending one’s nation, or one’s race, or some sanctified ideology can conjure. When I think of the violence in Charlottesville, I return to a few lines spoken by one of Robert Frost’s witches in a dramatic monologue: “Right’s right, and the temptation to do right / When I can hurt somebody by doing it / Has always been too much for me, it has.” That’s a powerful temptation, the temptation to do right and do harm at the same time. Frost’s eloquent witch operates alone. Add the force of a group, a leader, and a potent ideology and danger rises fast.
Do I still have that dark side? Do I still have the capacity to do harm as long as I can believe that I’m doing right? Of course I do. The rally in Charlottesville reminded me of that, though it’s not something that I’ve been inclined to forget for too long since the Allman Brothers show.
I dare say that everyone has this capacity. I dare say that I’m not alone.
I sometimes think that the reservoir of anger that fascism taps into may have to do with insult and with pride. How many times have we been humiliated in this life? How much resentment have we accrued? Milton’s Satan speaks of his “injured merit,” when he describes how God has humiliated him. Does he speak for all of us?
Maybe our nation has been humiliated. (The Germans felt they had been after the Treaty of Versailles.) Maybe it’s our race that’s been abused or our religion. When we are given a chance to discharge our rage in action, how tempting it can be, especially when the rage is sanctioned by higher powers. Burn that synagogue and serve the nation! Lynch the black man and defend southern womanhood!
There are many theoretical approaches to the problem of fascism. An influential one is in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt is historically minded, associating the rise of fascism with the rise of anti-Semitism, particularly as it grew during and after the Dreyfus affair in France.
Perhaps more illuminating theorists of fascism were the Nazi street fighters who pounded down the streets of Berlin and Munich, chanting, Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer. “One People, one Nation, one Leader.” I did not hear the chant in Charlottesville, though I did see more than one Hitler salute. But I felt the chant present in the background. One nation is the USA, clearly. One people? White people of course. But one leader? Who is that going to be? The rally was called Unite the Right, and about a half-dozen neo-fascists, ranging from soft to hard core were going to speak and try to claim the title. None of them seemed to possess the horrid magic that Hitler or even Mussolini did. But the man in the White House has at least a measure of dark charisma and maybe more. So far, he has shown remarkably little appetite for one-man rule. Let us hope this continues. One suspects that in their constricted hearts the neo-fascists were hoping to Unite the Right not under Baked Alaska or Chris Cantwell who was filmed in boyish tears when he learned there was a warrant out for his arrest, but under Donald Trump. This wish, and the possibility of its fulfilment, however slim, make the 500 neo-fascists who rallied in Charlottesville more dangerous than they’d otherwise be.
Fascists love order—and they are willing to create chaos to achieve it. But I think that you come closer to the heart of the matter when you recognize that the urge to be right and to do ill at the same time, and do it collectively and under the auspices of a leader, is the fundamental drive at the heart of fascism. The antifa, who engaged in street fighting with the neo-fascists in Charlottesville, are not overtly fascist: they have no leaders from what one can tell, they do not cherish racial homogeneity, or aggressive nationalism. But the collective hunger simultaneously to do harm and be righteous makes them allies under the skin with their neo-fascist foes.
If the reservoir of hate, this capacity for evil, is as common as I and many others, from the early Christian Fathers to the great Arthur Schopenhauer and beyond, believe it to be, then a few considerations follow. It is perilous to deny its existence in oneself. Some people are now congratulating themselves on hating hate and being ragingly intolerant of intolerance. They’ve found a blameless way to channel their rage—and to go on thinking that they are just and right human beings. They cheer as antifa stages riots, beating neo-fascists and those they think are neo-fascists, and those whose looks they do not approve. There is a dark side to us all—you do not need Jesus and Schopenhauer to teach you that, though they will.
Rudimentary psychology will teach you too. But we have largely banished psychoanalytical ideas from our culture. There are reasons to be skeptical about some of Freud’s thinking, to be sure. But reading him inevitably acquaints you with the corkscrew twists of the psyche. He teaches that we are creatures of ambivalence and have a strange capacity to love and to hate at the same time. He teaches us that our dreams and desires are often at variance with our conscious ethical commitments. He teaches us to mistrust professions of moral purity. After you consider Freud, it is not so easy to characterize yourself as purely good—or anyone else as purely evil. But Freud has been banished, and with him it seems the power to peer into one’s spirit and see ourselves for the complex, fascinating, and sometimes frightening creatures we are.
Fascists are full of hate and they know it. But not knowing about one’s proclivity for hate is dangerous, too. You’ll go whistling down the road, thinking yourself teeming with virtue, while you foment strife.
Cornel West, whose talk at the University of Virginia helped provoke the thoughts I’ve offered here, used a telling phrase when he came to Charlottesville a few weeks after the rally. He was in town on August 11 and 12 and during the riot was in legitimate fear for his life. He spoke from direct experience. West has no time for fascists, no time for their rebranding as the alt-right, no time for their playful memes: Pepe the Frog with a Trump haircut or the Kekistani flag. But in reflecting on the events of the 11th and 12th, he spoke of the “neo-fascist brothers and sisters.” That’s right, brothers and sisters. West is a Christian and to him that means never giving up on any living soul. In time, the neo-fascists brothers and sisters might embrace the teachings of Jesus, Buddha, or Confucius and be redeemed. Hold out hope. But the phrase evokes something else, too. The neo-fascists are our brothers and sisters because the same potential for hate exists in us as in them. We too could be swept up in a totalitarian movement. We too could swoon for a leader who clears away ambiguities and doubts and helps us get all our energies flowing strongly in one direction. We too could do harm under the pretext of doing right. Now one looks on as people of past good will hate Trump, hate Bannon, hate hate.
I’m not a pacifist. Sometimes hate is a well-justified passion. But hating someone entails the willingness to go to war with him. It means the enemy is so threatening that I’m willing to risk my life and see people I care about risk theirs to bring the enemy’s life to an end, or at least to render him incapable of future evil. But now not only neo-fascists but those among the parties of moral purity are indulging in hate recklessly. And for this, there may be a price.