President Trump [how it pains me to use those two words in conjunction], Republican leaders in Congress—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell particularly–and sycophants in the media, have latched onto a concept that they believe, perhaps correctly, will energize Trump’s base: Democrats, and by implication the left in general, are an “angry mob.”
“You don’t hand matches to an arsonist, and you don’t give power to an angry, left-wing mob. And that’s what the Democrats have become,” Trump declared at a campaign rally in Topeka, Kansas. They point to Antifa—a group that views the Democratic party with contempt—as their prime example.
In the early 1950s, the United States’ government arrested, jailed, tried, and convicted leaders of the Communist Party. The charge? Conspiracy “to advocate or organize” a political party that would attempt “sometime in the future, to overthrow the government of the United States through force and violence.”
Throughout the period of the trials, the historian Herbert Aptheker, a leading Communist Party intellectual, consistently maintained that it was not the Communist Party that instigated violence. Aptheker asserted that not only did the Party constitution provide for expulsion from the Party of any member advocating violence, it was invariably reactionaries who instigated violence, to which Party members sometimes responded.
“They’re plotting fascism,” Aptheker warned, presciently, “and fascists are not finicky when it comes to persecution and to torture. Every decent human being will have his turn; every decent human being did in every fascist country that has ever existed . . . . But the beasts are at work, here and now. . . . Fascism is being brewed in our land.”
Fascism was something that Aptheker knew, something he had experienced, something he had fought since the 1930s. He had studied the actions carried out by the Nazis in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, actions that now have an echo in alt-right, white-supremacist movements here and abroad. Like the Nazis, the reactionary and revolutionary right in this country have recognized a moment of weakness in our democracy. They have set out to to take advantage of that weakness, and make it worse.
They use the charge of “mob violence” to stoke fear in their already fearful supporters, and organize rallies to inflame their opponents. Their chants of “blood and soil” (an old Nazi slogan)reverberate through torch-light parades, and culminate in actions like the shooting of a counter-protester in Seattle or the murder of a young woman at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
“The Nazis often held rallies right where their enemies lived, to provoke them…”
Well-meaning opponents, people genuinely outraged by the open display of hatred, gather to resist, to challenge. “But they’re fighting at a disadvantage against a ruthless foe that does not observe their limits,” commented University of Washington historian, Laurie Marhoefer, “and at least some of the opposition,” as in the case of Antifa, “undertakes more drastic action” —fighting violence with violence.
After the shooting at the University of Washington by an alt-right supporter, UW student Republicans posted a comment on Facebook: “You have been seen on national television very clearly being the cause of increased division in our society and it’s time your flame is put out. . . . If you keep prodding the right,” they wrote chillingly, “you may be unpleasantly surprised what the outcome will be.”
Professor Marhoefer characterized the white supremacists’ actions in Charlottesville as “right out of the Nazi playbook.” She described a Nazi Party rally in 1927 scheduled in the Wedding district of Berlin, “a decidedly hostile location.” “The Nazis often held rallies right where their enemies lived, to provoke them,” she wrote.
Hundreds of Nazis were met by hundreds of opponents organized by the Communist Party. When anti-fascists disrupted the rally, a “massive brawl” ensued, with “almost 100 people” injured. The anti-fascists had “sent a clear message: Fascism was not welcome.” Even though anti-fascists believed they had won the confrontation, “violent confrontations with anti-fascists gave the Nazis a chance to paint themselves as the victims of a pugnacious, lawless left. They seized it.” Many Germans, fearful of street violence, supported the Nazis because they believed the left was responsible. “Dictatorship grew attractive,” Marhoefer asserted. “The fact that the Nazis themselves were fomenting the violence didn’t seem to matter.”
If the Charlottesville actions were right out of the Nazi playbook, so too is the current reaction by Republicans, in cahoots with their alt-right and white supremacist supporters. The Republican playbook calls for stoking fear and racism: fear of Mexicans, fear of Muslims, fear of women, fear of black people, fear of Democrats, fear of “The Mob.” And it’s working.
A majority of Trump supporters believe Trump should be given emergency powers, and Trump has shown a disdain for long-established constitutional protections. He has labeled the press “the enemy of the people.” He has toyed with the idea of being President for life. He has praised and encouraged violence among his supporters. He has emboldened Nazis and white supremacists. He is a pathological liar. If he defines “the mob” as a threat, arsonists ready to burn the country down, he, like Hitler, could claim for himself emergency police powers to suppress leftist violence and save the country.
If history has anything to tell us, Trump and the reactionaries have laid out a roadmap for future assaults–they are telling us what they plan. We must listen. We, of course, can’t let a concern about what Donald Trump or his supporters will do interfere with our resistance to his odious, abominable presidency. But we can plan our actions in a smart way. One of the lessons of history is, surely, to protest, to confront fascism.
But we don’t have to occupy the same physical space. If the alt-right and white supremacists plan a march, then, fine, plan a countermarch, but somewhere else. Let them yell their heads off to no audience while we gather elsewhere to oppose fascism and celebrate resistance. With little or no press coverage, without a “mob” to exploit, they’ll soon grow tired of shouting into the wind. They’ll go home empty handed. They’ll soon stop trying to provoke.
Gary Murrell is Professor Emeritus of History at Grays Harbor College. He writes and tends his garden in Grays Harbor.