The protests started as soon as Donald Trump ascended to power. His inauguration was marred by the DisruptJ20 blockades and outnumbered by the following day’s women’s march. American airports were mobbed with opposition to the travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries, and in New York City cab drivers and bodega owners quickly organized strikes. At the University of California–Berkeley, demonstrators shut down a planned talk by fascist haircut brand Milo Yiannopoulos using fire, broken glass, and fireworks.
The Resistance didn’t take long to show up, it has been stronger and more militant than almost anyone expected, and it doesn’t seem to have much in common with the Democratic Party. In terms of mainstream American politics over the last few decades, the opposition is just as illegible as the Trump regime.
The most aggressive edge of the resistance marches under the banner of anti-fascism, or “antifa.” While most Americans would likely agree that “fascism is bad,” anti-fascism is a more specific set of politics. The antifa banner features black and red flags, signifying an alliance between anarchists and communists. What unites these two groups (who have been known to kill one another from time to time) is a commitment to confront and defeat fascists and white supremacists by whatever means necessary. It’s a coalition that has existed for as long as fascism has; the Italian Arditi del Popolo (People’s Squads) rose to fight Mussolini in 1921, even when the Socialist and Communist Parties refused to support them. In 1924, anarchist lumberjacks allied with the Industrial Workers of the World waged a “drawn battle” with a Ku Klux Klan recruitment drive in Greenville, Maine. American anti-fascists have been fighting a mostly quiet conflict with domestic Nazis at punk rock venues and small white-nationalist gatherings for decades, but, as fascists have snuck their collective jackboot into the curved door of the Oval Office, the struggle has reached the mainstream.*
If Democrats can’t protect Trump’s targets, then more Americans will gravitate toward people with a plan and a tradition of anti-fascist struggle.
Antifa hit the big-time in 2017 when an as-yet-unidentified inauguration protester punched 38-year-old professional fascist cheerleader Richard Spencer in the face on camera. The clip went viral, and the Internet memed it to death—now you can even punch Spencer in a mobile game! As the video spread, interest in anti-fascism spiked, and I can say, based on personal experience, that the attitude at demonstrations has changed. Where masked and black-clad antifa used to get wary glares, now it’s thumbs-up and “right on!” from kid-toting parents. Former congressman and Michigan institution John Dingell tweeted “When I was a pup, punching Nazis was encouraged. Hell, some of my Army buddies won medals for it.” For Democrats and liberals who aren’t nonagenarian retired veterans, however, all this anti-fascism can feel like a threat.
A “concern troll” is someone who pretends to share a group’s goals, for the sole purpose of complaining about their tactics. Faced with anti-fascists in the streets breaking windows and Nazi faces, liberal pundits have gone full concern-troll. “Destroying D.C. businesses is absolutely the wrong way to protest Donald Trump,” wrote the New Republic’s Graham Vyse before the glass at the first Starbucks had hit the ground. At the New York Times, Frank Bruni claimed, bizarrely, that punching Spencer in the head “does more to help him than to hurt him.” As far as these folks are concerned, the problem is twofold: There’s no excuse, they say, for extralegal violence or property destruction (which they often confuse with violence), and anyway (they claim),the tactics are ineffective. That’s all a little rich coming from die-hard Hillary Clinton supporters, people who don’t have a lot of credibility when it comes to knowing how to beat Trump and his merry band of racist garbage. But liberals don’t share a strategic agenda with people who march under red and black flags anyway; what the pundits think about radical tactics is moot.
While professional Democrats race to catch up with their base, the Trump cabal has sprinted ahead with an openly malicious agenda. He is exactly who he said he was, and liberals (as well as conservatives who find themselves on his bad side) are staggeringly unprepared. Even though civil rights lawyers were able to quickly get a series of court orders to release legal residents detained under the travel ban, Customs and Border Protection is run by Trump loyalists, including a new acting chief who specializes in immigrant expulsion. At several points last week, CBP agents simply decided to follow the executive branch over the judicial and the legislative, even when faced with supposedly influential Democrats like Representative John Lewis and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
We’re still in the early Trump days, but already people are being held captive for their nationality and religion, while low-level functionaries at O’Hare feel empowered to snub the mayor of Chicago in the name of Trump. If Democrats can’t protect Trump’s targets, then more Americans will gravitate toward people with a plan and a tradition of anti-fascist struggle.
One of the protesters at the Yiannopoulos event was Berkeley alum (and my cousin) Alex Lemberg. The two of us have both been political for a long time, but from different angles: He was involved in his high school student council; I was involved in a failed plot to steal and burn my school’s ballot box. But when I saw him discussing the event on Facebook, Alex sounded more antifa than “I’m With Her.” After the Bay Area shut Yiannopoulos down, I talked to Alex about what compelled him to demonstrate and stop the right-wing troll.
“Milo hits very close to home. I am a gay Jew, he is a self-identified gay Jew,” Alex said. “I find his rhetoric to be so abhorrent that I couldn't ignore his presence at my alma mater.” In a previous talk at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Yiannopoulos mocked transgender student Adelaide Kramer, and U.C. administrators had warned that he might use the Berkeley appearance to target individual undocumented students in hopes of getting them deported. Even if the government doesn’t call that a clear and present danger, the school community did, and anti-fascists saved real people from real pain in an obvious way.
I asked Alex what he’d tell those critics who say that protesters are fueling pro-fascist propaganda. “People who will be sensitive to his messages are going to be regardless,” he said. “It is more important, to me, that we prevent the active recruiting of college students and especially prevent any additional outing of students, whether they be trans, undocumented immigrants, or any other group that is under attack.” He doesn’t support property damage in principle (Alex is also a law student), but his proximity gave him a more informed perspective than (say) Bruni’s. Fireworks were targeted “brilliantly” at smoke alarms in the buildings, he said, and protesters set fire to a portable floodlight that had been lighting a security corridor for Yiannopoulos and his entourage. “All the peaceful protesters, many of whom were older Berkeley residents, alumni, and even families, were cheering them on, which I considered a sign of efficiency,” Alex said, “not violence.” He told me that the real violence had come from the police.
Alex voted for Clinton in the Democratic primary but now wishes he could take it back. “I do feel like the party is failing me,” he said; “the Democrats' response to what’s actually happening has been terribly underwhelming.” If the mainstream is losing young people like Alex to anti-fascist radicalism (or at least to sympathy for the black bloc), then we need to reassess what exactly “mainstream” means. In a front-page article on Friday, the paper of record declared, with shocking agnosticism: “Anarchists Vow to Halt Far Right’s Rise, With Violence if Needed.” Based on the past few weeks, I am increasingly confident we won’t be alone.
*Update—February 8, 2017: This article has been updated with to correctly identify the Industrial Workers of the World.