Antifascism After Gaza

Genocide abroad—and growing political repression at home—prove that the “fascism question” goes far beyond Trump.

Alberto Toscano

Police officers clash with pro-Palestinian protesters as a fire extinguisher is deployed at UCLA early in the morning on May 2. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Over the past few years, discussions of fascism in the United States have, unsurprisingly, followed an electoral cadence, focused more on the presidency of Donald Trump — past and possibly future — than on the formidable far-right mobilization taking place through private foundations and state legislatures. In many ways, that’s justified, considering fascism has historically required, for its successful seizure of power, an electoral and constitutional process, in tandem with militias and vigilantism. But today’s so-called fascism debate” — an academic and intellectual dispute over whether it can, or already did, happen here—is taking place against a different backdrop than four or eight years ago: that of a growing movement, led by university students, to stop a genocide funded and sustained by the U.S. government. 

Alberto Toscano Illustration by Virginie Garnier

Many of those who have challenged the idea that a serious threat of fascism exists in America argue that focus on this potential both distracts from home-grown anti-democratic tendencies and serves a Democratic Party narrative in which the choice is either Joe Biden or Trumpian dictatorship. But the skeptics’ arguments rarely consider that any full discussion of the fascism question requires reflection on the link between political violence abroad and at home. And as today’s anti-war student movement is met with intense repression — part of a broader attack on collective dissent — it forces us to think about our increasingly authoritarian present beyond the national electoral cycle.

Contrary to the notion of an intractable polarization between Democrats and Republicans, a de facto elite coalition has come together — from complicit university presidents and culture war ideologues to billionaires and elected representatives of both parties — to affirm America’s commitment to Israeli impunity in the face of protest and public opinion, largely through bad-faith accusations of antisemitism exploited by far-right politicians. Debating fascism now has a different valence as images circulate of police snipers on university roofs, professors and journalists assaulted and arrested, and student demonstrators chanting (as at the University of Texas-Austin) APD, KKK, IDF, you’re all the same!” That a student encampment at UCLA was attacked last week first by a vigilante mob beating protesters and shouting Second Nakba!” and, 24 hours later, by masses of uniformed police shooting rubber bullets at unarmed students, is a grim illustration of a moment that has led many to reach for the F word” with no reference to Trump or his cronies. It is also a reminder that intensely repressive variants of authoritarian liberalism” have been the precursors and incubators of openly anti-democratic regimes in the past.

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Invocations of fascism are traditionally characterized by urgent rhetoric and calls for vigilance. That remains the case today. But we can also register significant differences in the scope and types of action that talk of fascism evokes. 

In a recent interview addressing the Biden-Trump rematch, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) declared that, while she was horrified by what’s happening in Gaza, when it comes to the election, at the end of the day, we have to acknowledge that we just can’t allow this fascist movement to grow in this country.” Talk of fascism here establishes an order of priorities: that a vote for Biden is the lesser evil when faced with Trumpism. A similar sense of the primacy of fascism’s electoral threat was voiced by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison during a recent debate, as he recalled conversations with friends who told him that one day in Gaza is worse than four year under Trump,” to which Ellison responded, Who says four years? This could be a long-term problem.” Neither Ocasio-Cortez nor Ellison minimized Israeli violence or U.S. complicity, but for both the threat of Trumpian despotism blunted opposition to Biden. 

That a student encampment was attacked first by a vigilante mob shouting “Second Nakba!” and, 24 hours later, by police shooting rubber bullets at unarmed students, has many reaching for the “F word” with no reference to Trump or his cronies.

By contrast, take Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s speech at the COP28 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai in December. In his remarks, Petro called on the audience to consider the Gaza genocide as a rehearsal of the future,” in a world where climate collapse, migration, racism and war are inextricably connected. Hitler is knocking on the European and American middle-class homes’ doors and many are letting him in,” Petro said. Why have large carbon-consuming countries allowed the systematic murder of thousands of children in Gaza? Because Hitler has already entered their homes and they are getting ready to defend their high levels of carbon consumption and reject the exodus it causes.”

While these aren’t exactly comparable statements, and they originate from very different leadership capacities, the distance between their conclusions helps illuminate a significant dynamic. For left-wing Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez and Ellison, the focus is primarily national, while for Petro it is planetary. In the United States, the threat of a fascist movement’s electoral consolidation can serve to relegate the genocide in Palestine to a secondary consideration. Petro instead summons Hitler to jolt his audience into seeing how the Global North’s collusion with Israel’s war is grounded in a capitalist mentality that treats most of the world’s population as both threatening and disposable. 

The effect of the first invocation of fascism is to delink the questions of climate, war and fascism; that of the second to view them as indissociable, not just in our analyses but in our politics. There is a bitter irony in granting primacy to the national fight against fascism over the campaign to stop a U.S.-funded genocide when the current Israeli government — in its exterminationist rhetoric, patronage of racist militias, colonizing drive and ultranationalism — fits textbook definitions of fascism far more neatly than any other contemporary regime.

There is a bitter irony in granting primacy to the national fight against fascism over the campaign to stop a U.S.-funded genocide when the current Israeli government fits textbook definitions of fascism far more neatly than any other contemporary regime.

Especially when it comes to the United States, the words of the great Marxist theorist of fascism, Nicos Poulantzas, still ring true: He who does not wish to discuss imperialism … should stay silent on the subject of fascism.” Historical fascist movements and states arose as late-imperial powers, with aspirations to revive settler-colonialism in the age of mass industry and mass politics. After the downfall of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, critics of U.S. empire abroad and racism at home repeatedly invoked the specter of fascism. In his 1952 piece Fascism in America,” economist Paul Baran (notably writing under a pseudonym to shield himself from McCarthyism), explained how a U.S. corporate-military coalition could carry out all the tasks of a fascist regime: securing through state power a mass basis for capitalist domination, while undermining any challenges from below, and only adopting fascism’s classic forms” abroad. 

Demonstrators protest in support of Rafah, next to a pro-Palestinian encampment at California State University, Los Angeles, on May 7, the day Israel sent tanks into the Gaza city and seized its border crossing with Egypt. (Photo by ETIENNE LAURENT/AFP via Getty Images)

As yet they need no storm troopers in the United States, slaughtering the wives and children of revolutionary workers and farmers,” Baran explained. But they employ them where they are needed: in the towns and villages of Korea.”

A quarter of a century later, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky would detail the way the Washington Consensus” reproduced itself by supporting third world fascism” abroad, from Indonesia to El Salvador. Postwar Black radical thinkers sharpened these insights, by connecting the role of U.S. political violence overseas in maintaining American hegemony to the function of racial terror at home in quelling movements for Black and Brown liberation.

When it comes to today’s fascism debate, we must look beyond U.S. borders. Or at least look at them, recognizing that violence against migrants is a key manifestation of contemporary authoritarianism. As the current moment exemplifies, the scale at which our language works is related to the scope of our moral and political imagination. If we believe that fascism is something that takes place only at the level of the nation-state, we might be persuaded that resisting fascism at home necessitates ignoring complicity with genocide abroad. But it is exactly this hopelessly cramped horizon being challenged in solidarity encampments worldwide.

If we believe that fascism is something that takes place only at the level of the nation-state, we might be persuaded that resisting fascism at home necessitates ignoring complicity with genocide abroad.

The willful crudeness of Petro’s historical analogy with fascism (Hitler knocking at Europe’s door) is yoked to a vision that tries to do justice to the gravity and interrelatedness of the violent crises that are bringing our world to a breaking point. In that, it goes far beyond the parochialism of the current U.S. debate on fascism, which too often oscillates between left-liberal warnings of a clear and present danger and skeptics’ demands that progressives confront America’s deep-seated authoritarian tendencies without making European comparisons. 

If we wish to talk about American fascism, in the shadow of a U.S.-backed genocide carried out by a state where some leaders happily wear the fascist label, the least that we can do is learn from an internationalist, Black and Third-Worldist anti-fascism — one which has always insisted that fascism must be tackled on the scale of the world. The encampments and occupations that have risen up from Manhattan to Atlanta show what it means to confront colonial and imperial violence, to challenge its racist and eliminationist ideologies, by making explicit how that violence is reproduced in the institutions and cities where we work and live. 

A radical politics of divestment is reviving the traditions of internationalist anti-fascism. There is perhaps no clearer sign of this than the words spray-painted on the side of a tent in Rafah: Thank you students in solidarity with Gaza, your message has reached.”

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ALBERTO TOSCANO teaches at the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. He recently published Late Fascism: Race, Capitalism and the Politics of Crisis (Verso) and Terms of Disorder: Keywords for an Interregnum (Seagull).

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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