Wednesday, 23 November 2016

This Machine Calls Fascists

“Stop using cuddly terms like ‘alt-right’, and call them what they are! They’re Nazis! That’s what they are! Actual Nazis!”

There’s a lot of this around at the moment – referring to the current populist right-wing movement in America, which is partly to thank (or to blame, depending on your perspective) for the recent election of Donald Trump as American President.

“Call things what they are,” goes the argument, “don’t be fooled. Say the name, and you are one step closer to slaying the beast!” Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced; I don’t think it is quite as easy as that. Because, unpleasant as they are, I don’t believe that today’s ‘alt-right’ truly are Nazis, in the traditional sense.

It is absolutely correct to look at Donald Trump and his alt-right followers and see more than just echoes of the European fascist movements of the 1940s. There are big similarities there, it would be totally wrong to deny that. But there are also some interesting differences – which those who claim to prize truth and transparency over kid-gloved euphemising somehow never mention.

In an excellent article for, Dylan Matthews interviews five experts on fascism, and explains why the label still doesn’t quite fit Trump and his cadre. Although plenty is ‘borrowed’ from fascism by the exponents of the new alt-right movement, notably absent (so far, at least) has been any desire for palingenetic abolition of society’s democratic institutions (I believe the contempt in which ‘the establishment’ is held in alt-right circles is a nod to this, but certainly nowhere near fascistic enough as to count). Similarly, there is a definite lack of what Matthews describes as a Sorelian "valorization [sic] of violence", in which violence for its own sake is considered virtuous or life-affirming.

I also think there are marked strategic differences. Nazism, in the old sense, had a particular way of doing things; the alt-right have adapted to a world where – thanks to the internet, social media, twenty-four-hour rolling television news, etc. – the media is unrecognisably different from when Hitler’s Nazis were on the march. It is not possible to be an old-style Nazi in a world like this; even when there is a crossover with true Nazis in the beliefs or the aims of today’s alt-right, their approach to realising those aims is very un-fascist.

Roger Griffin, author of The Nature Of Fascism, and professor of history and political theory at Oxford Brookes University, is quoted in Matthews’ article as saying “You can be a total xenophobic racist male chauvinist bastard and still not be a fascist.” This, for me, sums up Donald Trump and the alt-right; they may be appalling far-right populists, but they don’t quite fit the definition of actual Nazis.

What’s interesting to me, however, is how insistent some people seem to be that we do call them Nazis.

There is a compulsion to define everything in our world by what we already know. To look through our history books, and say “See? This is like that! These people are those people. They must be…” But this is not like that; our societies and our understanding have changed beyond all recognition from the fervour of the 1930s and the 1940s in which fascism thrived. And even if they share some of the same aims, these people are not those people. They have a different approach to the world. That is not to say that they are not dangerous people, or that we do not live in turbulent and troubling times – but it is not the same.

If the alt-right movement – despite certain similarities with ‘old-school’ Nazism – is a new phenomenon, then it is right that it should have a new name. Possibly ‘alt-right’ still isn’t the best term to use, since it seems to sanitise and normalise the repugnant attitudes of the sect – but then, neither is an ill-fitting descriptor from seventy or eighty years ago, and half a world away.

Whatever we call the movement, it would help if we could try to define it fairly soon. The alt-right is in the ascension, emboldened by Donald Trump’s electoral triumph, and the accompanying increase in media coverage. Is it not possible that the rise of the alt-right could be at least partly due to the fact that they are looking forwards and forging something new, whilst the rest of us look back, rifling through history texts in the hope of finding the correct nomenclature?

Yes, language does matter. So why make do with an historical term which only sort-of fits, to describe a new political faction which has its own distinctive characteristics? The alt-right isn’t just Nazism with a new haircut; in fact, it isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before. Personally, I think we need to acknowledge that, if we are going to defeat it.

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