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Antifascism and anti-Trumpism aren't always the same thing

The hour is late, but there's still time to understand the difference

Lisa Z. writes:

Jonathan, 

Serious question:

How do you think Biden’s actions are going to help or hurt him at the polls in November? At this point, what could President Biden do to appease you and so many others on the far left so vehemently opposed to Israel? What outcome are you hoping for in this next election? Will this outcome help or hurt your cause? 

That is a serious question. And while I dispute her characterization of me as being “far left,”1 it deserves a serious response. Things are looking bad for Biden’s chances in the fall, and his handling of both the Gaza crisis and the related campus protest movement across the United States are both playing a major role. This is not a good thing. If Trump gets back to the White House, and I cannot repeat this enough, there is no reason to be confident that democratic institutions will survive, nor that he will ever willingly leave office again.

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More narrowly, Trump will further enable Israel’s worst behaviors and deepen Palestinian suffering. Trump, who has repeatedly described himself as the “most pro-Israel president” in American history, broke with decades of U.S. policy by recognizing Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. As president, he announced a “peace proposal” (at a White House ceremony with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and no Palestinian representatives) that would hand Israel even more of the West Bank, and create a rump, subservient Palestinian state whose borders, airspace, security forces, electromagnetic spectrum, and foreign relations would all be controlled by Israel. Since Oct. 7, Trump’s main advisors on the region — his son-in-law Jared Kushner and former ambassador to Israel, David Melech Friedman — have promoted the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, followed by a re-colonization of the land by Israeli settlers and U.S. and Israeli corporations. As Kushner put it: "Gaza’s waterfront property could be very valuable.”

That should make my preferred outcome clear.

The problem is — and I will keep banging this drum as long as I have to — Biden’s incoherence on Israel and Palestine is both morally unforgivable and bad political strategy. He is bleeding support not only from young people, Arab-Americans, and others incensed with his continued support for a genocidal war machine, but also from pro-Israel moderates and Never Trump conservatives who are enraged at his furtive and contradictory efforts to ever-so-slightly rein that war machine in. I’ll give more details about that incoherence below. For now, I’ll just say that by trying to make everyone a little happy, he is making no one happy, as the pile of Palestinian corpses grows at his feet.

But that’s the narrow part of the question in the context of American politics. The bigger issue for me is why Biden’s management of the human catastrophe in Gaza is so salient. My answer is that it points to the larger and even more consequential failures of liberal politics over the last four to eight years.

Biden famously came out of semi-retirement to run for president because of the 2017 Nazi riot in Charlottesville — a riot whose white-nationalist participants Trump very clearly supported at the time. He declared in his 2020 election victory speech that “in this battle for the soul of America, democracy prevailed.” In other words, he ran on was in large part an antifascist platform, and won.

Four years later, his rhetoric and examples are almost exactly the same. At that White House event last month to which I was inexplicably invited, Biden again invoked Charlottesville. And again he warned of Trump’s uniquely authoritarian impulses. The only sign that time had passed were new references to liberal internationalism, mostly about helping Ukraine “fight off Putin.” The juxtaposition was telling. Biden’s vision of antifascism seems to be twofold: 1) Keep electing Democrats, and him in particular. 2) Arm America’s allies to the teeth and use them to defeat anything that smacks of the emerging Russian-Chinese-Iranian “axis.” That seems to be it. There is no step three.

That isn’t an antifascist politics in any sense worthy of the term. The fact that Trump is still the undisputed leader of a major political party — not only running in his third straight election but showing good odds of winning his first-ever national popular majority — is proof enough that the approach has failed. You can blame the kids and those “so vehemently opposed to Israel” as much as you want. But by monomaniacally focusing on electoral outcomes and a battle of personalities against Trump, Biden and those who unreflexively support him don’t just ignore the real causes of the rising wave of right-wing authoritarianism. They far too often concede the false premises on which that wave feeds itself.

The question above was a response to my May 10 newsletter, in which I noted that Israel’s plans to barrel forward with an assault on Rafah — the refuge of half of Gaza’s population — had pushed Biden to take the rare and diplomatically aggressive step of “pausing” a shipment of 2,000-pound bombs and other ammunition to the IDF. To the specific issue of whether that symbolic action was enough to “appease” opponents of the genocide, clearly not: First because the slaughter has continued. And second, Biden almost immediately reversed himself: This week, he authorized the transfer of $1 billion worth of additional tank rounds, mortars, and “tactical vehicles” to the Israeli military, accompanied by advisors’ assurances that, indeed, “arms transfers are proceeding as scheduled.”

That incoherence was further underlined by the overdue State Department report on Israeli human-rights violations to Congress last week. The assessment, delivered in a Friday evening news dump, revealed “serious concerns” that Israel had violated international humanitarian law in both the killing of civilians and aid workers, had created obstacles for the delivery of humanitarian aid (up to and including literally bombing aid convoys from the sky), and was providing “limited information” as to “whether U.S. munitions were used in incidents involving civilian harm.”

But when it came to the bottom line — findings as to whether Israel was violating either the Leahy laws or section 620I of the Foreign Assistance Act, either of which would legally prohibit arms sales to Israel — the administration punted, claiming that Israel was nonetheless “taking appropriate steps to investigate and where appropriate determine accountability.” (This excuse was further undermined by the report’s finding that “to date the USG is unaware of any Israeli prosecutions for violations of [international humanitarian law] or civilian harm since October 7.” The Palestinian death toll in Gaza has since risen above 35,000.)

This coddling goes to the heart of Biden’s failure to both recognize and confront the actual danger facing democracy. In a recent In These Times essay titled “Antifacism after Gaza,” the Italian philosopher Alberto Toscano subtly tweaked leftist Democratic politicians for whom “the threat of Trumpian despotism blunted opposition” to Biden’s Israel policy: “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.”

The campus protests would have been another opportunity for Biden to show his commitment to democratic and pro-social ideals. I’m not saying he had to support the protesters or their aims — they are, after all, in large part protesting him. But no one made Biden take the further step of employing reactionary talking points about the protests being fonts of antisemitism and supposedly genocidal rhetoric, or repeating memeified claims about “Jewish students” being “blocked, harrassed, attacked, while walking to class” — questionable claims that have been weaponized to justify state and vigilante violence against demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights.2 Biden repeated those claims on May 7, Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yet he said nothing about the weeks of wanton anti-demonstrator violence by both police and unhinged pro-Israel counterprotesters. In fact, instead of condemning the episodic police state, he is pushing a new plan to funnel $37 billion more to police departments and hire 100,000 more cops.

The political problem here should be obvious. How do you explain to a student who just watched, say, the NYPD throw their friends down a flight of stairs for participating in a nonviolent protest — acts committed without so a peep of condemnation from the president — that a vote for him is a vote against fascism?

Nor is Gaza the only place Biden and the Democrats keep undermining their claim to being the antifascist party. The president has repeatedly pleaded with Trump to work with him in passing a MAGA-like immigration bill: one that prioritized enforcement, detention, and “shutdown” measures over, for instance, pathways to citizenship for undocumented migrants or those who came as children. When Trump didn’t take Biden’s obvious political bait, the president tried running even further to his right. Biden can insist, as he did at the State of the Union, that he “will not demonize immigrants” or endorse Trump’s Hitlerian cant about “poisoning the blood of our country.” But by adopting reactionary fearmongering about the need to “secure the border” above all else, all that remains of a message to voters is that even squishy libs think the fascists have a point about immigration — it’s just that they aren’t willing to do more to stop it.

The connection between state violence at home and genocide abroad isn’t lost on the students. Popular chants connect the dispossession and killing in Palestine to U.S. policy in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Latin America, as well as immigration policy here: “From Palestine to Mexico / border walls have got to go.” As Toscano notes, protesters at the University of Texas chanted at the Austin police: “APD! KKK! / IDF! They’re all the same!” — connecting domestic policing and racism to the Israeli military. And indeed, that connection isn’t purely theoretical: thousands of U.S. police officers have received direct training from the Israeli military on crowd control, use of force, and surveillance in recent decades, including the NYPD, and yes, the Austin police as well.

Much has been written about the direct ways in which policies and experiences of dehumanization and violence in the imperial periphery make their way back to the imperial core, from midcentury theorists like Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Hannah Arendt, Albert Memmi, and Michel Foucault — most of whom connected Naziism in particular to the century of European imperialist atrocities that preceded it — to current scholars like historian Kathleen Belew, whose books including Bring the War Home trace the material connections between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq to the resurgence of the white power movement in America.

In my book Gangsters of Capitalism, I write in more detail about the clear causal links between U.S. imperialism and domestic fascism, both in the 1930s and 2020s. These were especially on display in Trump’s failed autogolpe of January 6, where the assault on the Capitol was led by veterans of the so-called War on Terror, who turned their training against their perceived domestic political enemies, as fascists have always done.

The dominant liberal theory of the case — that American authoritarianism is a foreign plot, masterminded by Vladimir Putin with assists from Xi Jinping and the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — not only misses the deeper dynamics at play, but reinforces them. You can certainly make a case that effecting a Ukrainian victory against Russian aggression would, on the whole, deal a blow to Putin’s brand of authoritarian Christian nationalism; and that allowing a Russian victory there would threaten the fragile democracies and democratic movements in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. But that justification shatters when it comes to arming the slaughter of Palestinian civilians, especially children, in the name of “security.”

Biden seems to know that — as he told me, “Israel's security from the region is essential, but is “fundamentally different than how Israel acts in Gaza.” Yet he has so committed himself to rhetorically connecting the defense against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and support for Israel’s invasion of Gaza — joined by somewhat tendentious ties to Iran, and to the idea that strengthening both countries’ militaries “is vital for America’s national security” — that he cannot stop. He has convinced and placated much of his base in the idea that supporting a fundamentally ethno-supremacist government in its drive to wipe out at least a significant portion of a subject people is necessary for fighting fascism. The contradictions cannot hold.

And they will not. Fascism has gone beyond being an issue of a single aging reality star president to a threat spreading through the population. A 2023 survey by American Public Media and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State found that over a third of Millennials (age 26-41) and nearly half of Gen Zers (age 18-25) believe either that it doesn’t matter whether they live under a democracy or a dictatorship, or that “dictatorship can be good in certain circumstances.” (Just 2% of Biden’s Silent Generation felt the same.) Nor is it just an American problem: Faith in representative democracy and yearning for strongman rule is rising to different degrees all over the world, in places as disparate as Mexico, South Korea, and, most disturbingly perhaps, Germany.

Biden had many chances to consolidate his gains over authoritarianism in the last four years. He could have expended his political capital in ending the undemocratic filibuster and pushing through the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. His attorney general, Merrick Garland, could have operated on a timetable that would have ensured that Trump faced justice for his attempts to steal the 2020 election and, having failed those, attempting to violently disrupt Congress to prevent the certification of his defeat. He could have denounced crackdowns against student protesters as a violent abrogation of democratic ideals. Instead, Biden’s signature legislative accomplishment in what could be the last year of his presidency is a $95 billion package to further implicate himself and the country in deadly foreign wars, including Gaza, as well as ban the most popular social media app used by young people to inform themselves about the world, in probable violation of its users’ civil rights.

In short, defeating Trump in November may be a necessary step in the effort to stem authoritarianism. But it will not be a sufficient one. And until the sitting president and his liberal base start to understand and act on that realization, the tide will only continue to rise.

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1  I’m way too much of a suburban dad to be an anarcho-communist and tankies are annoying.

2  I’ve looked into the most widely shared allegations. A student who filmed a widely shared video about being blocked from entering the pro-Palestine encampment at UCLA was not just a random “Jewish student” but a well-known pro-Israel provocateur who had been harassing the encampment for days, and was filming himself doing so again. A young woman whom a viral video claimed was “bludgeoned” by a keffieyah-wearing mob appears from another angle to have more likely to have sustained her injury after rushing toward a group of pro-Palestine protesters, then accidentally hitting her head on the ground after either falling or being pulled backward by her friends. Widely shared videos and photos of a handful of incidences of hateful and violent anti-Israel rhetoric in New York are recordings of New Yorkers protesting outside Columbia’s campus, rather than from the protest encampment itself.

Meanwhile, as noted, there have been far more numerous, well-documented cases of pro-Israel protesters not only harassing Muslim and pro-Palestinian students but engaging in violent attacks against the encampments. Those incidents have received a fraction of the White House and major media’s attention, and don’t seem to factor in overall appraisals of the pro-Israel movement or counter-protests at all.

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