Fascist movements are made with political violence. At any stage of their development they pose a threat to the safety of individuals they target. As fascism gains momentum it becomes a threat to society in general. If national leaders open the doors of political power to fascists, disaster results. Authoritarian nationalists, like those currently in charge of the United States federal government, may ultimately support fascists if they believe doing so will benefit their political position. Fascism must be fought with strategic consideration to effectively disrupt fascist organizing and disrupt fascist narratives.
Fascism is a particular kind of violent authoritarianism. It promises a radical transformation of society based on particular national and racial symbols, mass mobilization against internal and external enemies, the command of a charismatic leader who gained his position through struggle, and a violent vanguard. Fascists’ enemies are those they blame for weakening their concept of the nation. They typically say the nation is weakened by class conflict associated with socialists, by individualism associated with liberals, and by internationalism associated with both. Fascist movements find some combination of political minorities to target, whether they be Slavic, Jewish, black, or LGBT people. Fascists usually present their nation or race as the victim of a serious injustice that can be redeemed through some kind of conquest. Fascism can be described, as Hitler did, as National Socialism. The word “national” is an important modifier, as fascist solidarity is neither rooted in economic class nor international in nature, but is instead exclusively national and designed to cut across class lines and embrace hierarchy. In power, fascists keep intact the economic elites whose politics and ethnicity they can accept, and make few changes to property relations.
Under fascism, the individual has no liberties and is totally subordinate to the dominant community. Some individuals will have the opportunity to substitute their lost liberty with a sense of personal empowerment gained by participating in fascist violence and domination. For others, the role of enemy is assigned to them. With a totalitarian spirit, fascism seeks to invade and control spaces of private activity that it does not suppress. Typically it prescribes relatively strict roles for men and women of the nation. Always, fascism is against democratic government, and it only uses parliamentarians as allies when they are useful in consolidating power. Usually passion and will, especially as embodied by the leader, are emphasized over intellect and reason. Despite its propaganda of order and precision, fascism is disorderly and violent.
In European history, conservative political elites, attempting to gain mass support and keep the political left out of power, helped fascists come into national leadership. A fascist movement with the momentum of success is always a political threat, because fascists will attempt to create the conditions in which political power will be made available to them. Fascist movements without political power are still public safety threats, as they will build their organization through violence against marginalized people.
We should not pretend that a movement based on committing recognized crimes against humanity is just another political movement in the marketplace of ideas. We should not expect that people who join a movement with a history of violence at its core want to hold peaceful rallies. We should not accept the pretensions of caring for free speech from people who routinely threaten critics, deny access to the tools of free speech to outspoken women and people of color, and cheer for those who murder opponents. Fascists use the tools of free expression to attack the freedom of expression of their opponents, whether with threats of violence, swarms that render social media difficult to use, or violent actions committed by people gathered under cover of a political rally.
Fascists invaded Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. They opened with a torchlight rally, where they chanted slogans lifted from Nazi Germany as well as their own anti-Semitic slogans. When they encountered actual peaceful demonstrators they struck them with torches, spilling lighter fluid on them. The next day, fascists launched a gang assault on a black man before being chased away and threatened clergy people taking a peaceful stand before antifa drove them off. After a fascist sped his car into a crowd like an ISIS terrorist, the excuses came out, as did celebrations of the murder of Heather Heyer, complete with the misogyny that often accompanies such displays of lacking virtue. When fascist organizing is effectively disrupted, it becomes more difficult for fascists to commit violence.
The reason fascism must be treated differently than other forms of tyranny is the centrality of violence to the fascist project. While it would be a disaster if authoritarian communism, for example, took national political power, communists are less likely to rely on violent movement building, and communist regimes did exist for decades while doing things that did not center around totalitarian violence. Communist governments killed millions of innocent people, but Soviet arms also blocked genocides. It is also highly unlikely that authoritarian communism would get close to political power in the United States any time soon.
It is worth noting that authoritarian communists have not been the most reliable allies against fascism. The USSR and the international Communist movement were important, though meddlesome, allies to the Spanish Republic in its fight against fascism, and the Soviet people fought relentlessly after Nazi Germany invaded their country in 1941. However, in 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, effectively making Communists loyal to Stalin temporary friends of Nazi Germany. The Pact enabled Hitler to begin his race war in Eastern Europe and even divided the spoils of conquest between the two countries.  In the early postwar Soviet Union, the anti-Semitic term “rootless cosmopolitan” was a powerful label used by the regime, which sounds more than a little reminiscent of the authoritarian right’s railing against “globalists” who are predominantly Jews.
Fascism’s position must be located relative to authoritarian nationalism. Although Donald Trump encourages fascists and has employed fascists like Stephen Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, he himself has not organized a genuine fascist movement. His administration can be characterized as kleptocratic authoritarian nationalism that feeds on bigotry that it encourages.
Vladimir Putin’s government is perhaps a model of kleptocratic authoritarian nationalism. While Russian authorities are soft on vigilantes and Cossacks taking matters into their own hands, and a motorcycle gang with ties to Putin sometimes operates as paramilitaries or propagandists, Putin does not have an official paramilitary force as a true fascist would, and it appears that he would rather have a population acquiescent than mobilized. Russian government agents promote fascist activity in the West, even pushing fascist narratives on social media, but Putin must publicly distance himself from anyone soft on the symbolism of Nazi Germany.
One could say that there is a spectrum of authoritarian nationalism with Trump at one end and Hitler at the other, but it is more instructive to see them as two distinct movements with an important relationship. This is a crucial distinction to make. The authoritarian nationalism of Trump has already caused massive damage to political culture in the United States and by itself poses a greater threat to marginalized people than presidential administrations of recent history. Trumpism must not sink deep roots into society. At the same time, it would be dangerous if outright fascism became more associated with the currently dominant force in the Republican Party. This becomes more obvious as fascists try to present themselves as “normie” Trump supporters, and portray anti-fascists as out to beat up anyone who voted for Trump. While Trump appropriates the style and language of fascism and his politics helps fascism grow, he has not fully embraced fascism – at least not at this time. He has not created a paramilitary vanguard that answers to the leader and his ideals of national renewal do not reach as far into personal life as true fascists would.
A well-functioning republican government should be able to fend off a fascist movement, but authorities cannot be trusted to fight fascism on their own. As Mussolini’s fascist movement was gaining strength, some local police and military commanders provided arms and vehicles to his squads, and sometimes police officers even joined their raids.  In more recent times, there is abundant evidence that Golden Dawn, Greece’s fascist movement, draws a disproportionate level of support from police officers.
Fascists in Italy and Germany needed to make alliances with political elites to gain access to national leadership. While one could argue that this makes it important to not offend political elites at times of crisis with further disruptions, a more valuable lesson is that it is important that elites are shown that the public will tolerate no alliance with fascism, that the public has the means and will to prevent such an alliance from being effective, and that fascists will not bring about any order in society.
A fascist movement gaining momentum will continue to create disorder and use bold lies to blame violence on its adversaries. When fascists do not face effective opposition, they look like the winning side. Mass action may be needed to embolden people resisting fascism and to create political, social, and economic consequences for those who enable fascism. At the critical moment, if the authorities fail or refuse to suppress fascist violence, a popular mobilization must be ready to defeat fascism.
It is important to not feed the narrative that fascists create. To say “don’t give them attention” is mistaken. It is not attention that fascists crave, but power. The marginalized people that fascists attack will not be able to ignore them and without an attentive public fascists can become the enforcers of unscrupulous authorities.
Fascists like attention when it means they can demonstrate power. When they face consequences for their actions, they do not like it. Giving fascists attention does not always mean giving them power. Supporting the narrative they want makes them powerful. Not mounting an effective opposition makes them powerful.
When thousands marched in Boston against fascists on August 19, it was clear who was the powerful side. However, not two weeks later, fascists and their sympathizers rallied in Berkeley, and despite the thousands who rallied against them, the authoritarian right managed to score a public relations win primarily by manipulating the narrative on social media. Their narrative was then picked up by mainstream media and pundits. Unfortunately, it appears that many American pundits are more ready to believe that antifa will beat up random people they don’t like the look of than it is for them to believe that actual fascists are marching in the street and targeting people for violence. 
When no pretext for fascist violence can be found, fascists and their propagandists will not hesitate to invent one. World War II began with the Nazis creating a fake Polish attack to justify their invasion. The propagandists of the authoritarian right have made up stories about anti-fascists, including fake plans to stab Trump supporters, and a fake assault on a woman in Berkeley. They have also tried to portray rioting crowds of authoritarians as if they were peaceful protesters.
Anti-fascists should be prepared to counter fascist narratives, including by the use of social media actions. The general public should acknowledge that social media has been weaponized by authoritarians and accept responsibility for checking and curating content in their feeds. Journalists should recognize the danger of false equivalencies and uncritical reporting.
It is important to build formal and informal organizations to occupy the political space that fascism wishes to capture. A focus on inclusive community building, including organizations with a militant defensive stance, can remove some of the draw from far-right organizations that support fascists. It is also valuable for some anti-fascists to be receptive – but very cautiously so – to people who defect from fascist organizations.
Anti-fascists should be proud. We may claim liberty as our heritage and anti-fascism as part of that history.
For radicals, the anti-fascist heritage can be found among the proud fighters in the hills of Spain and Italy, battling fascism in the time of its rising. American anti-fascists can look to the army of black and white soldiers of the Civil War era that became a force of liberation for the former slaves in its path, many of whom would put on its uniform and pick up a rifle. We can see how the gains made in the army’s wake were battled by the partisans of the Confederacy, some of whom would ride in white uniforms and hoods and become a proto-fascist movement, and we can see how the fight has continued. For many of us, we can boast that our grandparents fought fascists across Europe and there is no way we are going to let a bunch of Nazis terrorize our streets.
Regardless of our relatives or birthplace, we can look to the heroes who fought against fascism and to the casualties and survivors who must have wondered what else was possible. We can examine the people who bear guilt for the crimes of history and the people who tried to look the other way. We can see all this and declare where we will stand. The defense of inclusive liberty, reason, and the space needed to improve society is an important mission for those who wish to see a greater future.
An effective defense against fascism includes holding massive street rallies, organizing defensive formations, engaging in information warfare, exposing known fascists and fascist violence, providing other paths for disaffected people, strengthening the resolve of the general public to oppose fascism, and blocking fascists from opportunities for political power. It is a massive undertaking with multiple roles. It’s fully justified by the threat posed by fascism at all levels of its political development. It is urgent and requires broad participation at a time when fascists have openings to power, as people in power are conspicuously lacking in their opposition to fascism and conspicuously disdainful of the restraints that liberal democracy would place on the exercise of authority.
Notes and References:
 Examining the actions of fascists is the best way to understand fascism. A good overview is Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism. 2004. For Nazi Germany in particular, see Spielvogel and Redles, Hitler and Nazi Germany. 2010.
 See also: Antony Beevor, The Second World War. 2012, pg 17.
 Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, pg 62.
 Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, 115.
 Shane Bauer, “What the Media Got Wrong About Last Weekend’s Protests in Berkeley,” Mother Jones, August 29, 2017.
 Beevor, The Second World War, 21.