Under fire from the new fascism
“Little fucking kikes,” screams alt-right leader Richard Spencer, in audio recorded immediately after the murder of anti-fascist protester Heather Heyer. “They get ruled by people like me. Little fucking octaroons. My ancestors fucking enslaved those little pieces of fucking shit … Those pieces of shit get ruled by people like me. They look up and see a face like mine looking down at them.”
That’s the authentic voice of fascism: not simply racist but exulting in violence and power.
So what? you might ask. Everyone always knew Spencer was a white nationalist.
And perhaps they did. Yet, as recently as July this year, CNN hosted a conversation with him, chatting amiably about Donald Trump’s tweets.
We need to talk about fascism, particularly here in Australia.
We need, as Australians, to talk about it because the perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre grew up in this country – and the crimes he is being prosecuted for in New Zealand, killing 51 Muslims and injuring 49 others, continue to resonate around the world.
The Christchurch gunman was not the first fascist activist to embrace individual terrorism. In his manifesto, he praised previous shooters, particularly Anders Breivik. But more than anyone else, he solidified a template for would-be terrorists, presenting a model deliberately constructed to encourage imitators.
In Poway, California, in El Paso, Texas, in Baerum, Norway, and in Halle, Germany, young men have invoked New Zealand as they opened fire on those they regarded as racial inferiors.
Those subsequent murders were an intended outcome by the Christchurch perpetrator, so much so that we might say his massacre did not end with the deaths of 51 people in New Zealand but rather continues, wreaking more carnage through the atrocities it inspires.
In his manifesto, the perpetrator writes of his admiration for Oswald Mosley, a man who built his British Union of Fascists in the ’20s and ’30s around the ideas of Mussolini and Hitler. In the context of an unprecedented economic crisis, Mosley weaponised anger – in particular the anger of middle-class men enraged at their own unexpected misfortune. He directed their hatred both at the masses below them and the financiers above them, wrapping his whole incoherent and unstable doctrine together with racial conspiracies and an enthusiasm for redemptive violence.
Unlike Hitler or Mussolini, Mosley survived World War II, albeit after being incarcerated as a traitor by the British government.
In the late 1940s, he sought to rebuild his movement. Yet after the horror of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was no longer publicly palatable and the Mosleyites were attacked whenever they gathered.
Such was the fate of English-speaking fascists throughout the 20th century. With a few exceptions, they remained a tiny collection of cranks, marginal to real power.
But the 21st century opened up new opportunities.
First, the war on terror normalised an Islamophobia that replicated, almost exactly, the tropes of classical anti-Semitism, providing the far right with a new and more mainstream racial doctrine around which to organise.
Meanwhile, increased anxieties about border security facilitated a rise of xenophobic populism – Donald Trump in the United States, Pauline Hanson in Australia. The right-wing populists of the new century differed from classical fascists in that they did not fetishise violence. They did, however, trade in racial conspiracy theories – and their success gave a credence to ideas previously associated with the fascist fringe.
On top of this, the internet allowed genuine fascists to spread their doctrines without the opposition they encountered in the real world.
Activists discovered they could recruit from within the troll culture developing on online bulletin boards such as 4chan and, later, 8chan. Trolling attracted downwardly mobile young men who found cruel, transgressive humour a compensation for their inability to develop careers – especially after the global financial crisis – or relationships.
For many, an ironic embrace of memes from the so-called alt-right developed into a genuine commitment to misogyny, racism and fascism.
In 2016, the election of Donald Trump – and the role played in his victory by alt-right sites such as Breitbart – convinced fascist activists that they could leverage online influence into real political power.
The Christchurch gunman followed their efforts closely, cheering as the United Patriots Front rallied in Melbourne, and as American fascists assembled for the Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville.
But as soon as the fascists emerged into the real world, they faced, just as Mosley had in the ’40s, intense opposition.
Consistent anti-racist organising meant that by the end of 2017 fascist groups were in disarray in both countries.
Some wanted to keep marching, insisting that a real movement had to conquer the real world. Others argued to go back online, to the spaces where they could spread propaganda more freely.
The Christchurch perpetrator devised a third strategy, a quite different answer to their strategic dilemma: he recognised that in order to make a political breakthrough, fascists needed to do more than meme. But he also accepted that, in the English-speaking world, they would struggle, in the short term, to turn their online support into a mass movement.
His solution was terrorism – but a particular kind of terrorism.
Historically, gun massacres, in the form we know them today, were vanishingly rare. In a 2004 study the forensic psychiatrist Paul Mullen wrote that they “do not even begin to appear until the 20th century and only emerge as a recurring theme in the last 30 years”.
From 1916 to 1966, the year Charles Whitman opened fire on a crowd at the University of Texas, records show only 25 public mass shootings.
By contrast, Mother Jones identifies at least 110 such incidents since 1982.
No consensus exists as to why this increase has occurred. But it seems plausible that in an economic and social environment in which many feel alienated and impotent, violence allows damaged individuals to experience a power and intensity that is absent from their everyday life. This, perhaps, explains the gendering of gun massacres, with boys socialised to understand a lack of control as an almost existential wrong – an injustice to be redressed through the authority of a deadly weapon.
Whatever the reason, unstable men now turn, in a way that their fathers and grandfathers did not, to a particular psychological script: one in which a would-be killer stockpiles guns and ammunition, assembles a uniform, writes a list of grievances, and then opens fire in a public place until he is killed or, more rarely, captured.
Just as earlier fascist activists recognised troll culture as a milieu from which they could recruit, the Christchurch perpetrator identified the gun massacre as a vehicle for fascist politics.
With his own attack, he followed the traditional script but gave each element a distinctive and didactic twist. When he posted pictures of guns, he displayed fascist slogans on them; when he wrote a document, he didn’t complain about workmates or family but outlined the history and philosophy of fascism.
At the same time, he consciously appealed to the culture of the fascist bulletin boards, studding his manifesto with memes and in-jokes.
Even the footage of his killings contained 8chan memes. The video quickly circulated as another piece of transgressive “humour”. But because it showed actual deaths of Muslim men, women and children taking part in worship, it reminded viewers that the perpetrator had, as he put it in his final message, “stop[ped] shitposting and … [made] a real-life effort”.
The clip was designed to fascinate young men already attracted to violence, encouraging them to think that if they carried out a similar atrocity, they, too, would be transformed from hapless losers into fascist supermen, going out in a blaze of glory to save the white race.
In Poway, the shooter attacked a synagogue, as did, initially, the fascist in Halle. In El Paso, the young man inspired by Christchurch targeted Hispanics.
In some senses, the targets mattered less than the violence – it was the willingness of fascists to murder that differentiated the political tradition they represented from everyday right-wing populism.
The Christchurch killer probably did not believe those who imitated him would bring fascism to power. But he did think that acts of nihilistic terror would familiarise the public with the brutality on which genuine fascism depended.
Immediately after the massacre, the New Zealand government, and much of the progressive media, vowed to prevent the glamorisation of the crime.
Jacinda Ardern pledged never to say the killer’s name. New Zealand’s chief censor banned the perpetrator’s manifesto and video; the local press signed a voluntary agreement to limit the coverage of his trial.
All of this was understandable.
Yet the perpetrator did not seek mainstream notoriety. He staged his atrocity to appeal to a particular cohort of online fascists, a tech-savvy group who can easily evade online censorship.
In seeking to avoid giving the killer publicity, the media risks obscuring the real nature of his project, presenting Christchurch as an inexplicable act of depravity rather than a deliberate political strategy.
And that matters.
Fascism hasn’t disappeared. No matter how often 8chan gets taken down, the young men who admire the Christchurch perpetrator will find another site on which to congregate. It’s just a matter of time before another of them steps out into the public arena with a gun.
If we’re to stop them, we must understand them.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 23, 2019 as "Under fire from fascism".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.