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The Trouble with Trump and with "Antifa"

Recently, I have been deeply critical of President Trump, especially with regard to his tepid response to the mini-Nuremberg-like rallies of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in places like Charlottesville, Virginia (whether they have ACLU-approved permits or not). Trump, I have argued, is becoming more and more like a typical politician, rather than the "outsider" he claimed to be; it seems to me that he is not wanting to offend some of these groups, since they were among the constituencies that voted for him. And the first goal of all elected politicians is to be re-elected; a politician can't achieve the latter by alienating core groups that were supportive of his or her election in the first place.

When all the political pundits were predicting a Clinton victory, I was predicting a Trump victory back in July 2016. I saw that he was speaking to a large swath of American voters who felt disenfranchised and disillusioned, but I was especially critical of some of the proposals he was putting forth as solutions to the economic and political problems faced by the United States. His high-tariff, protectionist agenda was certainly in keeping with the nineteenth-century roots of the Republican party, with its "pro-business" neomercantilist policies and support of banks and infrastructure (back then, especially railroad) subsidies. But I warned that Trump's proposed anti-immigration policies, which threatened to round up 11 million undocumented individuals, had all the makings of a police state in terms of its enforcement. Fortunately, though he's taken a tougher stance on immigration, I suspect that his proposals for walls and such may fall by the wayside.

And while I've been critical of the fact that Trump's hirings and firings in the Oval Office or the West Wing appear like weekly installments of "The Apprentice," it is clear that despite Republican control of both Houses of Congress, 26 governorships, and 32 state legislatures, the GOP is so fractured that it is as much a demonstration of Madisonian "checks and balances" and frustrated ambitions, as if two or more parties were vying for power, as my old NYU politics professor, the late H. Mark Roelofs spoke about in his wonderful book, Ideology and Myth in American Politics: A Critique of a National Political Mind. As I have maintained, due to "this political fragmentation, the GOP can't seem to do one fundamental thing to alter the course that this country has been on for a hundred years or more... a 'road to serfdom' paved by both Democrats and me-too Republicans . . ."

I have never been comfortable with Trump's alliance with Steve Bannon, so his departure from the White House brings no tears to my eyes. And I am not fond of the so-called "alt-right", even though its stance---and Trump's original stance---against the neoconservative foreign policy that has dominated this country for too long was a breath of fresh air. Alas, now, even Trump's noninterventionist "instincts" against unending war are at odds with his newly declared policy shift in the Middle East. No timetable has been offered for 'strategic' reasons for the end of the longest war in American history, but at least Trump retains the view that the United States should not be attempting to "rebuild" other countries in its own image. Gone is the "nation-building" agenda put forth by the neocons who ran George W. Bush's foreign policy, of which Trump was deeply and justifiably critical. But how much longer this war lasts is anyone's guess. Judging by the longevity of Islamic terrorist memory, we could be looking forward to at least a century or two more of armed conflict before any armistice.

To be clear, however, my criticisms thus far of Donald Trump's policies are not an open endorsement of what has become known as "Antifa." It is supposed to be a short-form designation of a variety of groups that are "antifascist" in their agenda. Well, I'm as antifascist as any libertarian can be; I'm also an anticommunist, an antisocialist, or in libertarian parlance: an antistatist. I do not believe that augmenting the power of the state in any way, shape, or form benefits the "common good." As I pointed out in my post on "Statism and Tribalism: Fraternal Twins," it was Hayek who noted in his Road to Serfdom that

. . . the more politics came to dominate social and economic life, the more political power became the only power worth having, which is why those most adept at using it were usually the most successful at attaining it. That's why, for Hayek, "the worst get on top." Well, I don't know if we have yet seen the worst, but one thing is clear. It is in the very nature of advancing government intervention that social fragmentation and group balkanization occurs; indeed, one might say that the rise of statism and the rise of group conflict are reciprocally related. Each depends organically on the other.

So, to be "antifascist" tells us nothing about what one is for. It is not sufficient to be "anti-" anything if one does not know what one is fighting for. When the Nazis and the Soviets signed a 1939 nonaggression pact, too many voices on the "antifa" left, who had formerly opposed Hitler, fell silent, as the Nazis and the Soviets carved up Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Romania. And when war finally came to the Soviet Union, those same voices were raised in concert for United States intervention in World War II on the side of the Soviets to defeat fascism in Europe. For the Old Right, the "America First-ers" of their time, fighting on the side of one mass murderer (Stalin) to defeat another mass murderer (Hitler) had no inherent value for the victory of human freedom. That debate was effectively ended in the wake of the events of December 7, 1941, which made it impossible to keep the United States out of a war that led to the deaths of over 60 million people and the birth of the nuclear age.

What my "instincts" tell me is this: adopting the thuggish behavior of the thugs one opposes, leads, almost inexorably, to the victory of thuggery, under whatever political guise. Perhaps those who oppose the policies of Donald Trump should study the works of Gene Sharp, founder of the Albert Einstein Institution. He is one of the foremost theoreticians of nonviolent resistance. And make no mistake about it: whether it was practiced by Gandhi in India or Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States, the nonviolent techniques that Sharp has articulated in his many works are fully in keeping with the strategy of resistance. But they do not duplicate the paradigm of force that is being practiced by those whom one opposes. Inevitably, the use of coercive force by opposition groups merely replaces one form of coercion with another. It has been argued, persuasively, that "[f]rom 1966 to 1999, nonviolent civic resistance played a critical role in 50 of 67 transitions from authoritarianism." So if "Antifa" wants to show its commitment to another, "revolutionary" form of politics, it should start by renouncing violence. And if "Antifa" wants to fight effectively against any perceived authoritarian threats from the Trump administration or its supporters, it needs to take pause, for among its ranks is a collection of groups, some of whom would replace America's "neofascism" with yet another form of statist tyranny.

For the record, I want to state that I am not very optimistic about the future of individual liberty in this country. I fear that the promise of genuine freedom and individual rights is becoming a distant dream. But if you oppose those elements of Trump's policies that will undermine liberty, you gain neither freedom nor rights if you happily join hands with folks who would slit your throat in a new battle for political power, in a system where political power is the only power worth having.

Postscript: My friend Irfan Khawaja had a nice retort to my post: "I don't know about this non-violence stuff. I mean, I'm not one to cast the first stone. But the second one has its attractions...."

I responded:

I know. I just think that there are a lot of strategies within civil disobedience that can be amazingly effective. Civil disobedience is not turning the other cheek, but being disruptive in ways that can put one on the moral high ground and bring down walls of power.
But I'm also from Brooklyn. And half-Sicilian to boot (no pun intended). And the second stone can sometimes stop power in its tracks too. There are contexts where I, myself, don't see how nonviolence is a universal prescription for resistance. How, for example, does one use nonviolence as one is being led by SS guards into a gas chamber? Bombing the trains that led into Auschwitz, and massively disruptive riots in the Warsaw Ghetto can be acts of heroism too, but the Holocaust still happened. And let it be noted that 13,000 Jews died in the Warsaw uprisings, in contrast to 300 Nazis, while the vast majority of the Ghetto residents (estimated to be around 300,000+) were to die in Treblinka.
It's a tough question to answer. But there's a wonderful story told about surviving terror by literally standing up, no matter how many times you are struck. It's in the [2015] film "Bridge of Spies," a story told by the Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (played by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance), to attorney James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), about "Standing Man."

Jim Farmelant raised a good point with which I agreed, in general, when he said: "Violence should never be one's first resort. But it is foolish to take it off the table completely." Chris Despoudis raised another good issue, stating:

Regarding Civil Disobedience, it reminds me of Slajov Zizek's comment that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler specifically because his civil disobedience aimed directly at disrupting the existing edifices of the system totally and without backing out. I think he's correct to some degree. Non-violence works when you're opponent cannot see you as an externalized other that needs to squashed, when those who are fighting aren't willing to do terrible things for their country instead of merely great things. The issue of Germany on 1939 was not an issue of non-violence. The issue was that Germany had to be destroyed completely in order for its system to be able to be changed.

I replied:

Very interesting points; but you know, some studies have been done of the concentration camp guards at the various death factories in Germany. And it was no coincidence that so many of those who threw the victims into the gas chambers were also habitual drinkers, as if they had to numb themselves from any feelings of concscience.
One of the kernels of truth of nonviolent resistance is that at some point, the people who are victimizing you start to realize that you are a human being, and for those who have any vestige of conscience, that reality eventually takes hold, and begins to erode their own capacity to victimize you. The key to the Nazi ideology, the Nazi "social psychology," therefore, was to create a culture that saw all non-Aryans as not human; this was fatal for the victims, but it was also essential to those who would be doing the victimizing, for if you are convinced that what you are killing is not human, you will exempt your conscience from human empathy.
Obviously, for some, this did not work; alcoholism and habitual substance abuse was a way of drowning out any thoughts that the Other was human. Interestingly, Leonard Peikoff has a good chapter on this in The Ominous Parallels but one can find good studies of this throughout the post-World War II literature. And let us not forget the famous "Milgram experiment", which illustrated just how far intelligent people would go in following the orders of a superior. It showed that even highly educated folks, when ordered to do so by an "authority figure" would be drawn to inflict more and more "pain" on folks who didn't answer questions correctly (the pain inflicted was only indicated on a scale, not actual; but this fact was not known to those who were being ordered to inflict greater and greater levels of pain intensity on the actors who were playing the part of students answering incorrectly).