Navigate to News section

Everybody Hates Nazis!

The symbolic politics of anti-Nazism in the age of Trump

James Kirchick
November 08, 2017
Screenshot: YouTube
'The Great Dictator,' 1940.Screenshot: YouTube
Screenshot: YouTube
'The Great Dictator,' 1940.Screenshot: YouTube

At the height of its influence in the late 1930s, the German-American Bund summoned 20,000 people to jeer Franklin Delano Roosevelt and salute Adolf Hitler at Madison Square Garden. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Fritz Kuhn’s pro-Nazi organization boasted 25,000 dues-paying members and 8,000 Sturmabteilungen (Stormtroopers)—numbers which may well underestimate the group’s support. While World War II rendered sympathy for overt fascism taboo in America, the virus never went away entirely. A 1967 Anti-Defamation League report cited 75,000 members of the John Birch Society, (by no means a fascist organization, but the leading extreme right-wing group at the time), at least some of whom may have been open to fascist beliefs. Exploiting backlash to the civil rights movement and under the charismatic leadership of David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan (which claimed 4 million members in the 1920s) achieved a minor resurgence in the 1970s, and accumulated 10,000 followers by the end of the decade.

Fascism was hardly poised for a revival in America during the Cold War. Yet the 1984 murder of Denver Jewish radio host Alan Berg by members of an Aryan Nations offshoot, (an event dramatized in the 1988 Costa Gavras film Betrayed), rekindled the American’s media’s fascination with neo-Nazis. At the time, the ADL estimated total membership “of the entire white supremacy movement” to be 10,000, with about a tenth of that number ostensibly “willing to bear arms and fight.” A decade later, spurred by bloody, highly-publicized confrontations involving federal agents at Waco and Ruby Ridge, anti-government militias, (some of them committed to resisting the Z.O.G, or “Zionist Occupied Government”), were believed to command the loyalties of anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 people. Paradoxically, extreme right organizing then declined again under the administration of America’s first black president, to the point that, by 2011 “the country’s largest neo-Nazi party” could claim only 400 members dispersed across 32 states.

So are Nazis making a huge comeback in America? No. Nor was what appears to be a long-term downward trend in membership of neo-Nazi organizations gainsaid by the events of this past August, when a demonstration geared at mobilizing America’s legions of fascists and haters summoned just a few hundred people to Charlottesville, Virginia. For all the warnings about a resurgence of fascism under the presidency of Donald Trump, the assembled skinheads and more nattily dressed denizens of the “alt-right” were massively outnumbered by counter-protestors. About Richard Spencer, the media-savvy, pseudo-intellectual alt right impresario, the description offered in a 1965 FBI monograph of American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell, a frequent subject of newspaper and magazine profiles in his day, seems spot-on: “a shrewd small mind inflated into a national nuisance by undeserved publicity … a braggart and bully, who tries to delude his maladjusted followers into believing they are crusaders.” So too was David Duke in Charlottesville, his Botoxed face and buff torso more suggestive of an aging Fort Lauderdale muscle queen than America’s führer emeritus.

None of this is to downplay the toxicity of these deranged individuals, one of whom killed a young woman in Charlottesville (and wounded many others) by driving his car into a crowd of people. But some perspective is in order. The fact that there are real pedophiles who molest children does not imply that there is an epidemic of pedophilia in America or that local nursery schools are run by pedophiles who engage in satanic rites. Similarly, the fact that there are 400—or even 10,000—people who call themselves neo-Nazis in America is regrettable and dangerous in every single instance. It’s also normal.

To be sure, Donald Trump’s election wasn’t normal, and it owes itself at least partly to white racial resentment. Yet that doesn’t mean that America has turned Nazi, either. As the minuscule turnout for the “Unite the Right” rally demonstrated, a very small percentage of the U.S. population is actually interested in taking political action to further overtly racist and anti-Semitic beliefs. While racism and anti-Semitism have hardly disappeared in American life and are unlikely ever to go away, there is no mass fascist political movement in America. To be an “anti-Nazi” or “anti-fascist,” then, is a materially meaningless political identity in America today because literally everybody—with the exception of Richard Spencer and his harem of boys sporting “fashy” haircuts—opposes national socialism and fascism.

And yet ever since Donald Trump assumed the presidency, an increasing number of serious people seem to believe that they are engaged in a twilight struggle against Nazis, just like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. The hysteria began with the label Trump’s political opposition adopted for itself, “The Resistance,” a moniker that, unless you are burying weapons in the forests of Poland or hiding in the basements of French country houses, one has no right to assume. Purporting to offer “lessons from the 20th century,” a pamphlet by a leading Yale historian of Europe has become the unofficial Resistance bible, reaching No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. “On Tyranny” offers tips on living under dictatorship ranging from the anodyne (“Make eye contact and small talk”) to the paranoid (“Make sure you and your family have passports”). So common is the resort to hyperbole that Times film critic Manhola Dargis, in a review of Dunkirk, could casually complete her panegyric on armed British resistance to Nazism by observing, “the fight against fascism continues”—just like the Civil War continues, or the Renaissance continues, presumably. As a metaphor—but not in reality, right?

So where do all these legions of Nazis and passionate brigades of anti-Nazis come from? They come from the land of political hyberbole, which is where Trump came from, too. They come from Twitter and Facebook. They are the products of a moral panic with an underlying political cause, which is now being exploited by a wide range of political operatives—ranging from well-intentioned organizers who rightly see Donald Trump as a blight on the American polity, to PC commissars looking for fiercer ways to condemn everyone they disagree with, to activists with fund-raising machines who see an opportunity to turn scary swastikas and little-boy haircuts into mega-dollars.

Fighting Nazis is a free and easy moral victory because there is almost no one on the other side. This suggests that whoever generally advertises themselves to the polity as a brave and forthright fighter of Nazis is either immature or deploying lazy rhetoric to get their listeners to join in the unwitting pursuit of some other, presumably much less popular or acceptable goal. In other words, it’s a con job.

The use of Nazis as a political straw man was long a propaganda technique of the Soviet Union, which casually slapped the label “fascist” on anyone or anything it didn’t like. (The tradition continues with today’s Kremlin propagandists, for whom “fascist” or “Nazi” is interchangeable with “critic of Russian foreign policy.”) In the American context, hyping the threat of Nazism is a proven fundraising tool. The Southern Poverty Law Center long ago gave up its founding mission as an organization committed to the defense of poor black people’s civil rights in the American south—which are still badly in need of defense—transforming itself into a money-making machine that targets progressive bête noires like the reformist Muslim Maajid Nawaz, whom it slanderously added to a list of “anti-Muslim extremists” (the making of “lists” being another time-honored Soviet pressure technique). The real problem, however, isn’t so much the SPLC, which, like many non-profit groups can be expected to exaggerate whatever threat it raises funds to combat. What should worry us is a lazy and agenda-driven mainstream media that continues to treat a political smear operation with a shady Cayman Islands bank account as a dispassionate moral authority that fights Nazis.

For the first few months of the Trump administration, an outfit calling itself the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect could be relied upon to denounce the White House as a clear and present danger to Jewish lives. When Donald Trump belatedly condemned a wave of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers (which turned out, as Trump himself had hinted, to be the work not of a MAGA-hat wearing neo-Nazi but a disturbed 18-year-old Israeli Jew), the organization dismissed his words as “a Band-Aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected his own administration.” A few weeks later, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s latest chemical weapons attack. He used the question to launch into one of his typically half-literate disquisitions in which he declared that “You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” and referred to concentration camps as “Holocaust centers.” It isn’t giving Spicer the benefit of any doubt whatsoever to conclude from this performance that he is an abject and pitiful moron who could barely stumble his way through a junior high school history class—but he is not an anti-Semite, anymore than he was drunk or stoned. He was obviously just born that way. Yet there was the Anne Frank Center, with all the tact and subtlety one would expect from an organization devoted to preserving the memory of a 14-year-old girl murdered by the Nazis, announcing on its Facebook page, “BREAKING NEWS: SEAN SPICER DENIES HITLER GASSED JEWS DURING THE HOLOCAUST.”


Anti-Nazism is a substitute for hard thinking. And it is important to recognize the rhetoric and tactics of contemporary anti-Nazism for what they are: not a proportional or apposite response to the actual American political situation, but instruments of a virulent new form of political warfare that insists on demonizing one’s political enemies. One sees a similar dynamic at play with the notion of “white supremacy,” which, in the America of 2017, means anyone or anything that a cohort of angry Twitterati doesn’t like. George Wallace was a white supremacist, and so is Richard Spencer. As a political identification, a white supremacist is qualitatively different from a racist. The latter may harbor prejudices, and even support some discrete policies one could interpret as intentionally discriminatory (mandatory minimum sentences, say, or a low minimum wage, or barring convicted felons from voting). They may also, like Donald Trump, explicitly appeal to white racial animus. But this falls short of calling for the re-imposition of Jim Crow or the creation of a white ethno-state. Today, the term “white supremacist” is recklessly applied to everyone from David Duke to Columbia professor Mark Lilla (a liberal critic of identity politics) to the American Civil Liberties Union, recently the target of protest at the College of William & Mary by members of Black Lives Matter chanting “liberalism is white supremacy,” an assertion that is the logical endpoint of the new progressive politics.

Attempting to conflate the majority of Americans who recoil at this sort of wildly divisive politics with the minuscule number of actual overt Nazis, and treating Richard Spencer as an emblematic and important political figure whose ill-attended rallies and pompous communiqués make front-page headlines, is the height of political idiocy. Not just idiocy in the factual sense of being wildly inaccurate, but idiotic in the practical sense, in that it alienates potential allies and will destroy any conceivable anti-Trump coalition, which, after all, mathematically speaking, will need to include at least some present or former Trump supporters. One saw this idiocy at work a few months ago in Boston, where tens of thousands of people descended upon the Common to denounce a handful of political eccentrics (including Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Indian-American Republican challenger) as “Nazis” and “KKK.” This politics of conflation makes sense if you are Richard Spencer, hoping to convince every white person that they must join his movement. And it also makes sense if you are a hard leftist who believes that polarizing and dividing society is the way for your radical beliefs to triumph. Which is, ironically, one of the ways Germany got Hitler.

Donald Trump will go down as among the worst presidents in American history for many reasons, one of which has nothing to do with his own behavior but rather the way in which his awfulness calls forth awfulness in response. In their predictions of impending fascist doom, many “resisters” are beginning to sound like right-wing survivalists. For all the talk of Trump violating the “norms” of American politics, which he has done repeatedly—beginning with his calls for his opponent to be jailed—so too are his opponents. Resolute in their righteousness, they have taken to playing dirty, violating democratic procedural norms themselves on an ongoing basis.

To take only one relatively trivial example, the unprecedented leaking of the transcripts of phone conversations between the president and various foreign leaders, while maybe providing a few laughs for late-night television hosts, is likely to have profoundly negative effects on the future of American diplomacy. “No leader will again speak candidly on the phone to Washington, D.C.—at least for the duration of this presidency, and perhaps for longer,” writes David Frum, one of Trump’s harshest critics on the right. The leaking of conversations between various Trump administration officials and Russian diplomats—none of which have shown any evidence of criminal behavior—should also give us pause. “A world without norms to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information about U.S. citizens is not just a world in which Michael Flynn is revealed as a liar and removed from office,” former Bush administration assistant attorney general Jack Goldsmith wrote in a piece that otherwise excoriates Trump. “It is also a world in which intelligence bureaucrats repeat the trick for very different political ends that they deem worthy but that might not be.” Violations of democratic norms by the “Resistance” exist on a spectrum that begins with leaking transcripts of the president’s phone calls, progresses through intelligence community manipulation of domestic politics, and ends with street violence.

And that is where the politics of anti-Nazism leads. For if Trump is a proto-Hitler, if it is “pretty much inevitable” that he will stage his own Reichstag fire, then the response to his rule must be commensurate with the challenge. Hitler, after all, wasn’t stopped by the filibuster, never mind pussy hats. And if Churchill and FDR allied with Stalin to fight Hitler, why shouldn’t liberal Democrats link arms with the goons of antifa, as suggested by progressive luminaries like Cornel West?

For it takes no courage or discernment whatsoever to condemn Nazis in America. It’s like condemning pedophiles or cannibals.

In the late 1960s, an element of the West German “extra-parliamentary” left adopted a critique of the postwar Federal Republic which claimed the country was not a real democracy but a mere continuation of the Nazi regime. One of the movement’s leaders devised the term “Raspberry Reich” to describe a place where bourgeois consumerism masked the ruthlessness of a capitalist-imperialist state. Belief in this nonsense persuaded a group of young radical Germans to form a criminal gang called the Red Army Faction that killed over 30 people in a decades-long string of bombings and targeted assassinations. It was the same nonsense that motivated the Weather Underground, the Red Brigades and countless other left-wing terrorist groups around the world.

Thankfully, we have not seen the return of the organized left-wing terrorism that was the ugly byproduct of the 1960s counterculture. Yet. Though politically motivated, the June shooting at a congressional baseball game, which seriously wounded Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, was the work of a lone wacko who was not linked to any organization. The attack on Republican Sen. Rand Paul by his neighbor may have been simply a neighborly dispute. But the conditions for a resumption of domestic terrorism—from the far left and far right—are being lain, both by a president who daily does his very best to rile up his supporters with incitement against the media and anyone else who questions his fact-free statements of counter-reality and by an opposition that seriously asks the question “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” The inclusion and celebration of Angela Davis—laureate of the Lenin Peace Prize and the East German Star of People’s Friendship; enthusiastic supporter of the Jonestown People’s Temple cult—at the Women’s March was a worrying sign, as is the continued glorification of the empty-headed but reliably pro-Islamist Linda Sarsour. These are not good heroes to have.

In Europe, left-wing terrorism is already on the rise. A series of bombings and attempted bombings of political figures by far-left Greek organizations led that country’s opposition leader to blame the ruling post-communist Syriza party, which for years fomented a “culture of hate.” Meanwhile, the Berlin state interior ministry warns that “2016 was marked out by a spiral in left-wing violence that not only led to a multitude of serious crimes but also in part to a radicalized tone. … The inhibition threshold regarding physical attacks is sinking, and we are now at the stage where targeted assassination of political opponents no longer appears completely unrealistic.”


In addition to licensing violence, another danger of calling your opponents “Nazis” is the spell of absolute and unassailable righteousness that the word casts over those who employ it, rendering them unable to see the weeds that are thriving in their own gardens. Last week, in response to yet a further series of anti-Semitic outbursts by British Labour Party members and elected officials, (one described Jews as “the corrupt ‘master race,’” another asserted that “every f****** Jew that died in the Holocaust was a blessing”), Parliamentary Labour Party Chairman John Cryer told the Daily Mail, “I have no idea why people who hold these views would want to be a member of the Labour Party. The Labour Party has been at the forefront of confronting Nazism right from the 1930s—so what possesses these people to become members I don’t understand.”

I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Cryer’s bewilderment. For anyone who hasn’t followed the peregrinations of the Western far left over the past two decades—catalogued no better than in Nick Cohen’s depressingly prescient 2007 book What’s Left?—it would indeed be difficult to understand why people who think the BBC is a “Zionist-propaganda puppet show,” that “Israel is evil,” or that “every f****** Jew that died in the Holocaust was a blessing” would want to join a social democratic party which stood “at the forefront of confronting Nazism” in the 1930s.

But that was the 1930s. Today, the undoubtedly proud anti-Nazi history of the British Labour party is utterly irrelevant to understanding why it has become the most influential anti-Semitic institution in the Western world. Defenders of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn respond to every suggestion that he tolerates or encourages anti-Semitism within his party’s ranks by invoking the “Battle of Cable Street,” a 1936 riot between Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists on one side, and an assortment of communists, socialists, Jews and other ethnic minorities on the other, which has assumed mythological status on the British left. Never mind how little this eight-decade-old street fight—against actual Nazism, not the cosplay of Richard Spencer and his sexually-repressed followers—has to do with contemporary political realities. One of the more perverse twists of recent British politics is that on today’s proverbial Cable Street, much of the Labour Party would be on the other side. Now, British anti-Semitism is almost the exclusive domain of the hard left, which is firmly in control of the country’s second major party.

Paradoxically, while anti-Jewish social prejudice, like saying the words “smelly kike,” for example, or refusing Jews admittance to your country club, has become a serious social crime—the sort of transgression that can destroy careers—actual anti-Semitism (“a cabal of rich Jews secretly manipulates and controls American foreign policy to benefit Israel,” “Israel is an illegitimate foreign colonial implant whose bloodthirsty leadership hates peace and delights in killing Palestinian children”) has become increasingly acceptable, even mainstream on some parts of the left. Standing up to Nazism, as the members of the Democratic Socialists of America valiantly did in Charlottesville, serves as a convenient fig leaf behind which they can hide their institutionalized organizational anti-Semitism, which they giddily expressed just a week prior at their annual convention in Chicago, chanting “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free,” after passing a motion in support of the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement against Israel.

Anti-Jewish prejudice, which used to be socially respectable, indeed, even a marker of one’s elite status, has since become something with which respectable people under no circumstances want to be associated, “prejudice” of any kind being the ultimate vice. Today, not even the leaders of Hamas evince the sort of anti-Jewish prejudice upon which Evelyn Waugh once prided himself; Jews, they say, are welcome to live in their future state of Palestine, under Islamic law. Linda Sarsour doesn’t have any problem with Jews, either—just “Zionists.”

What the new seeming consensus against using bad words about Jews and other forms of anti-Jewish prejudice has left completely untouched, however, is anti-Semitism—which is not a prejudice at all. Anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory, one whose lethality has been proven century after century. Anti-Semitism is lethal to the societies in which it takes root because it provides an entirely false account of how and why things happen. Try running a maritime trading nation, or a large empire, if you truly believe that the reason your ships sunk or your armies were defeated is because of a secret and malicious conspiracy of Jews, whose aim is to harm you. Anti-Semitism is a primitive superstition, an ideological virus. Left unchecked, it can drive entire societies insane. Social prejudice may be annoying, depressing, and generally unpleasant, but it’s anti-Semitism that has proven to be physically dangerous—and very often lethal—to Jews.

The politics of anti-Nazism under Trump serve an important identity function for multiple groups. They allow the hard left, including its hardcore anti-Semitic elements, to pose as great friends of Jews, even while attacking Israel—and “Zionists”—as uniquely perfidious entities. And they allow liberal Jews, who have plenty of reasons to feel besieged, (as both Jews and as liberals), to make common cause with the left under a banner that makes them feel safer, or at least nominally protected by someone. Now, they can be the loudest and most visible anti-Nazis, and thereby serve a useful and honorable function in the larger identity politics constellation—as long as they resolutely shut their ears to some of the less pleasant and more anxiety-provoking implications of the surrounding chatter. This is the kind of bargain that frightened people make. But it’s a bad bargain.

For it takes no courage or discernment whatsoever to condemn Nazis in America. It’s like condemning pedophiles or cannibals.

Far harder to condemn is the University of Chicago professor who makes lists of good Jews and bad Jews, the idealistic college student who supports boycotting and then somehow doing away with the world’s only Jewish state and ending hurtful words and Constitutional protections for free speech, the murderous anti-Semitism and violent misogyny that pervades Muslim communities across Europe, or the colleague who celebrates an unhealthy obsession with “Zionist racism” and “warmongering neocons” on his Facebook page. In that silence breeds the potential that might give us actual Nazis, or whatever new kinds of monsters will emerge from the rubbishing of the Western liberal order—which is what the polarizing elements of both the right and left are truly aiming at. The word “Nazi” is a weapon in their hands. Jews, who know the true meaning of that word, should take it away from them, not encourage them to use it.


You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.