The west coast is burning. Just as flames are tearing through forests and communities at terrifying speeds, rumors about antifa arsonists and Soros-funded firebugs are spreading uncontrollably online. And like the wildfires, conspiracy theories are proving difficult to contain. Federal and local law enforcement have tried to counter this misinformation only to be denounced as Deep State agents.
While some people have been arrested for individual acts of arson, officials have found no evidence that any of these incidents were politically motivated or connected to any sort of organized effort. Nevertheless, the far-right has cited these cases as evidence of a leftwing plot to foment chaos ahead of the November election.
Such rumors have found fertile soil on the American right, which is already in the throes of panic over the unrest that has broken out across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death. At the same time, the growing pro-Trump QAnon movement, a largely online phenomenon, has created the infrastructure for conspiracies to spread rapidly.
The fires have created a perfect storm, exacerbating a number of disturbing trends — the most alarming of which is the rise of far-right vigilantism. In Clackamas County, the epicenter of the Oregon fires, signs have appeared everywhere with threatening messages, like “U Loot, We Shoot.”
A crew of independent journalists who were heading into the area reported being stopped at a road-side checkpoint by a group of armed militia members who pointed guns at them, photographed them and demanded to see identification.
There has already been a great deal written about the spread of narratives and misinformation blaming the fires on antifa or Black Lives Matter or George Soros, etc.
Most of these pieces point to recent rising trends in conspiratorial thinking worsened by online culture. While that’s certainly an important component, what we’re seeing now has much deeper historical roots. The internet is only a tool by which a distinctively fascist mode of thinking metastasizes.
Allusions to Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy have been en vogue since Trump got elected. By now, they’re cliche. Though it is apt, in a sense, to connect Trumpism to the fascist movements of the mid-20th century, it’s not a one-to-one comparison, and crude analogies can often overlook important distinctions.
For example, while the Nazi and Fascist parties were highly organized with their own specialized paramilitary units, Trump is at the head of a looser, more decentralized coalition.
Instead of brownshirts and blackshirts, he has Proud Boys, various militias, QAnon cultists, and Boogaloo Boys. These represent the armed wing of a conservative movement that isn’t homogeneous either, combining more traditional Republicans with Tea Party populists, evangelicals and wealthy elites.
Not only are the various far-right elements not unified under a single organization — many are actively hostile to one another. Within just QAnon, for instance, there are factions, personality conflicts and schisms.
Some have argued that without a united mass organization, it’s historically inaccurate — or premature — to apply the label “fascism” to what we’re seeing now. However, the counterargument is that this is precisely the form fascism takes in the highly atomized and individualistic political culture of the United States in the 21st Century.
Umberto Eco, who witnessed the rise and fall of fascism as a boy in Italy, offered a solution to this thorny question of definitions in his influential essay Ur-Fascism. Eco recognized that many of the parties and systems that are called “fascist” — from the Falange in Spain to the Apartheid government of South Africa — vary greatly in form, structure and ideology.
He laid out a list of 14 features of what he calls “The Eternal Fascism.” Go down the line and you’ll see many — anti-intellectualism, traditionalism, machismo, fear of difference, etc. — that describe perfectly the politics of the American right under Trump, but a few in particular are worth emphasizing.
Most relevant to our current situation is №7 “obsession with a plot.”
Eco writes: “To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country.”
This sense of national identity is reinforced by the struggle against those believed to be plotting the nation’s destruction. Eco goes on to say that the “followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside.”
There is no shortage of groups that meet the criteria for appropriate enemies of the American far-right — Muslims, immigrants, China— but ultimately Trumpist conservatives are defined primarily in opposition to the left.
Though fascist movements vary in form, the one universal constant is anti-communism. Antifa and Black Lives Matter are seen as mere outward faces of a singular communist plot with various shadowy Deep State “globalists” pulling the strings. This perception of the left is seen in a variety of unhinged hashtags on social media, ex. #BLMAntifaTerrorist #BLMmarxist.
Fascism is about neatly dividing the world into two discrete categories. Us against them. Patriots versus anti-American terrorists. Christians versus godless communists and Muslims. Conceptualizing their enemies as an undifferentiated mass is the only way fascists can achieve unity, which is how you wind up conservatives who legitimately believe Hillary Clinton is secretly the head of antifa or that Joe Biden is some closet Marxist radical.
Okay, back to the fires.
We’ve established that fascism is fundamentally about a struggle of the nation against its enemies, and this fosters a paranoia about plots against the homeland. But there are other aspects of fascist psychology that feed into these fever dreams about antifa arsonists: irrationality and the inability think in complex, abstract terms.
Fascism can’t solve problems. It can only cast blame on enemies. The fascist approach to foreign affairs is to say the Chinese are “raping our country.” Unemployment? It’s the immigrants taking our jobs.
The Nazis had no solutions for the economic woes of Germany, so they focused on rearmament and mobilizing the German masses to exterminate the Jews.
The highly successful campaign waged by entrenched energy interests over the past three decades ensures the average conservative won’t even acknowledge climate change is real. So naturally the response to the very real effects of climate change is to transmute the problem into a living enemy that can be fought.