This has been the year of the Alt-Right. The appearance of battalions of torch-bearing white supremacists chanting “blood and soil” and “the Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville in August appalled many Americans. The murder of Heather Heyer, allegedly by a white nationalist who had participated in the march, shocked many more from their complacency. Would-be homegrown Führer, Richard Spencer, and Christopher Cantwell, the “Crying Nazi,” became household names — the faces of a new, potent Fascist movement that appeared out of nowhere. Klansmen and goose-stepping Nazi brownshirts (or at least white polo shirts) were suddenly on the march.
Only… anyone even peripherally connected to the American and global anti-Fascist movement (listen to historian Mark Bray here) will tell you two things: That the Fascists haven’t just appeared because they never went away, and that it is a mistake to think of them solely as Nazis or Klansmen. The American Fascists of the 21st century come in all forms, wearing all kinds of uniforms, and these days they are usually draped in some variation of the American flag. They are the Fascists in your neighborhood.
I have been researching white supremacists for decades, beginning with my reporting for The Montreal Gazette and Wired News in the 1990s, and when the Alt-Right made its presence felt in liberal, cosmopolitan New York City in rallies on consecutive weekends this past June, I was there with my camera.
The central organizing principle of America’s various shades of Fascism is an aggressive white masculinity anxious to assert its privilege and desperate to be heard. While there are women in the Alt-Right, the foot soldiers of American Fascism are overwhelmingly young, male, and almost exclusively white.
A disproportionate number of them are middle-class college students who seem to find their post-adolescent identities in the group solidarity and martial myths of aggressive Americanism and white nationalism.
One recurring theme is their adoration of the police, symbolized by the “thin blue line” flag — seen in the photo above — for police solidarity. This reverence has little to do with any respect for the justice system or laws, and everything to do with the image of the policeman-as-gunslinger, standing between good Americans and the flood of miscreants and undesirables they believe threaten their way of life. And at a time when police are murdering African American men at an alarming rate (and largely getting away with it), such hero-worship is hardly racially-neutral.
The Oath Keepers and 3-Percenters take this police-worship to the next level. Growing out of the “Sovereign Citizen” and Patriot movements, and the militias that spawned domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, they mobilize notions of a kind of heroic masculinity in their claim to be true guardians of the people. The Oath Keepers made headlines in 2015 when they arrived at the Ferguson, MO demonstrations, armed with assault rifles. They were not there to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Due to local gun control restrictions, neither the Oath Keepers, nor the 3 Percenters at the New York rallies were armed, although it was hard not to get the feeling that they were playing “dress up like GI Joe” for the occasion. In jurisdictions that permit the open carry of firearms, however, both organizations usually appear fully armed. They claim to be politically non-aligned, and that they are merely present to defend all citizens from potential violence, yet they only “defend citizens” participating in Alt-Right events. As the Oath Keepers showed at Ferguson, they are not particularly inclined to serve and protect citizens on the Black Lives Matter side of the street.
And there is something chilling about the militiamen’s enthusiastic embrace of violent vigilantism. The Oath Keeper above wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the symbol of the Marvel Comics antihero The Punisher, a vigilante who employs brutal violence against all those he considers criminal, and who has little regard for law and order, let alone due process and civil rights. The Oath Keepers and 3 Percenters are motivated by the principle that laws are for the weak, and the strong will rule by might alone.
For all of their theatrics and militaristic bluster, however, the militiamen in their Army-Navy Store fatigues are only a small part of the Fascist spectrum. Other groups have mobilized different versions of the same kind of militant masculinity in different uniforms.
It is a mistake to think of American Fascism as solely a gun-toting, rural, or even suburban phenomenon. One of the reasons why Fascist demagogues like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer seek out university audiences is because young, male college students are often their most eager recruits. The brainchild of Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes. the Proud Boys perform a strange kind of highly-ritualized white urban masculinity, evoking British working class skinhead and football hooligan culture with decidedly upper-middle-class white privilege. Their black-and-yellow Fred Perry polo shirts are a nod to the British Mod and Skinhead subcultures of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, Fred Perry is a prestige brand, and those polos don’t come cheap; they retail for about $100. The Fred Perry company has publicly asked the Proud Boys to shop elsewhere.
The Proud Boys are the hipster bro-scouts of the Fascist right. In some ways, they are a laughably ridiculous group, complete with elaborate membership rituals and a code of conduct that includes a prohibition against masturbation. However, they are also prone to extreme violence, and make up the vanguard of the alt-right’s storm troopers. Privileged, middle-class boys they might be, but at Berkeley, Halifax, and elsewhere in the last year they have demonstrated that they take their Clockwork Orange cosplay very seriously in brutal attacks against anti-Fascist activists.
Of all the new Fascist groups, the oddest and, in some ways, most disturbing is Knights Templar International. KTI has been active in European, and above all British, far-right anti-immigrant politics for several years. Recognizable by their red crusader cross emblem, KTI’s members believe that they are part of a chivalric tradition that reaches back to the 12th century, and are dedicated to defending Christendom against Muslims and other infidels.
It is difficult to tell how serious or well-organized the American “knights” are; it is easy enough, after all, to simply order a shirt or a flag on the Internet. In Britain, however, the group has been closely associated with a number of far-right nationalist causes and campaigns. It current leader, Jim Dowson, has been involved for several decades in Northern Ireland’s Orange Order, and in the British National Party and Britain First. He has convictions for rioting and weapons charges in Britain, and was instrumental in disseminating Russian-produced pro-Trump propaganda in the 2016 US election.
Perhaps most chilling, Dowson is reported to have recently relocated to Eastern Europe where he is working with Hungarian, Russian and Bulgarian extremists to fund an anti-immigrant paramilitary force at the front lines of the Middle East refugee crisis.
American Fascists almost universally embrace the kind of “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric promoted by KTI. The core belief of all of these groups is that white European racial identity and purity face an existential threat from outsiders, and that this identity can only be saved in the performance of a particular kind of militant masculinity. Although the 3 Percenters and Oath Keepers appeal to the myths of the American Revolution, and the Proud Boys style themselves simply “Western chauvinists,” KTI’s brand of exclusive ethnonationalism is never far from the surface.
Along with the stars-and-stripes, and the Confederate and Gadsden Battle Flags, your neighborhood Fascists favor the “Vinland flag,” a green, white and black nordic-cross banner that rhetorically claims North America — Vinland in the Icelandic Sagas — as the exclusive territory of what one demonstrator called “the Nordic race” without a trace of irony or humor. The same demonstrator explained that all his comrades want is “a homeland for white people, like Israel is a homeland for the Jews.”
For all of its variety, 21st century American Fascism is far from fractious. The differences between the Knights, Boys, and Keepers really represent variations in style, not of philosophy, embodied in one Proud Boy adorned with a KTI’s crusader cross, the Vinland flag, the Confederate battle flag, and Pepe the Frog. The other side doesn’t goosestep in brown shits and hobnailed boots, or under white hoods; they are here among us, and they are ever more united.