Every right-wing authoritarian movement has one thing in common: a brutal clampdown on any persons or groups who promote equality.
Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the alt-right march down East Market Street toward Emancipation Park during the Unite the Right rally on August 12th, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In mainstream American media, the political left is frequently portrayed as a nexus of intolerance and out-of-control partisanship. Writers like Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write entire books warning that left-wing campus protest will undermine academia's intellectual traditions of vigorous debate and fearless inquiry. The Atlantic ran a report at the beginning of March identifying Boston's liberal Suffolk County as the most intolerant county in America. Politically correct liberals, we are told, shut down campus speakers, recklessly identify their opponents as racist, and generally try to stifle debate. Their ideological inflexibility is a threat to the public sphere.
This general hand-wringing about the left tends to distract people from one of the central political phenomena of our time: a growing, rabid, conspiratorial anti-leftism on the right. That anti-leftism has been metastasizing for decades, and it has a growing body count. Yet the right's hatred of and violence against people on the left is rarely treated as a trend by the media. Enforcing "political correctness" is characterized as an obsession of the left, not the right; President Donald Trump's attacks on the media, for example, aren't generally characterized as part of a larger movement of right-wing speech policing.
This blind spot about anti-left animus isn't just a danger to the left. History shows that it's a danger to the country, and to global democracy as a whole.
Like any political designation, "the left" is a somewhat amorphous term, but broadly it refers to political movements that seek to achieve greater equality. That ideal is sometimes defined as being centrally about economic equality. But many modern left-wing movements are also focused, even primarily focused, on anti-racism, feminism, LGBTQ activism, and other efforts to defend and secure equal rights for marginalized people.
Anti-leftism has united large swaths of the American political establishment since at least the Cold War. Presidents from John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan built their political careers on denouncing left-wing ideology and Communist regimes. Right-wing and centrist politicians have long associated the left with what Reagan in 1964 called "the ant heap of totalitarianism." For over half a century, the United States defined itself in opposition to a global enemy that claimed to speak for communists and socialists everywhere.
Even by those standards, though, the rhetoric on the right over recent decades is disturbing. Right-wing pundits have joked about murdering people on the left for years. In the 1990s, talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh quipped, "I tell people: 'Don't kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus—living fossils—so we will never forget what these people stood for.'" His words were echoed recently by the neo-Nazi Chris Cantwell, who ranted in a Gab post that leftists should face "complete and total destruction." Memes and jokes about "free helicopter rides" for leftists like Bernie Sanders have become common on the right as well. This is a reference to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who murdered some of his left-wing opponents by throwing them from helicopters.
In 2015, another far-right figure echoed this animus even more crudely. "Had Dylann Roof reached political maturity he would have seen the word is not nigger, but liberal," wrote John Russell Houser. Shortly after he wrote those words in his journal, he opened fire in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, that was screening Amy Schumer's Trainwreck. Conservative media had criticized the film for pushing immoral liberal values. That day, Houser killed two people and injured nine.
It's obviously impossible to draw a direct line between words like Limbaugh's and actions like Houser's. But we know that violent language and violent fantasies are often used to create a climate in which beatings and even murder are permissible. In his 2017 book, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, David Neiwert discusses Limbaugh and Howser, and notes that rhetoric like theirs reflects a politics of "eliminationism ... whose goal is to excise whole segments of the population in the name of making it 'healthy.'" When Nazis compared Jews to rats, they were dehumanizing a targeted population in order to prepare the country to accept the need to exterminate them.
Adolf Hitler's prejudice against Jewish people is widely understood and condemned today. But his parallel and rabid hatred of leftists is less frequently broached in popular discussions of the Second World War. Yet the two hatreds were deeply intertwined. The scholar Robert Paxton has notedthat fascism was distinguished specifically by "an anti-liberal, anti-socialist, violently exclusionary, expansionist nationalist agenda." In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler is obsessed with what he called "Bolshevist-Jewish" Communism. Hitler hated leftists because he saw them as Jewish, and Jews because he saw them as leftists.
This same conflation of ethnic "Others" and the political left was behind last October's shooting at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue. The alleged shooter was enraged because he believed that billionaire Jewish leftists like Democratic donor and Holocaust survivor George Soros were funding illegal immigration into the U.S. The Tree of Life synagogue supported HIAS, a Jewish non-profit that resettles refugees. Here, in a single gruesome incident, we can see how hatred of Jews, hatred of immigrants, and hatred of the left are part of the same toxic brew. In Pittsburgh, the result was the murder of 11 people—the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history.
The shooter's anti-Semitism has been widely, and rightly, condemned. Yet his profound anti-leftism has barely been mentioned or discussed. In fact, the attack on the synagogue was used by some right-wing commentators as a specious occasion to attack the "Israel-hating left" and scoff at left-wing Jews who had expressed concern about a palpable rise in anti-Semitism since Trump began campaigning for president.
Animus against leftists is so ingrained in American life that people have trouble condemning it even when it leads to murder.
The far right capitalizes on the fact that mainstream politicians, pundits, and citizens are reluctant to stand in solidarity with leftists. Hitler's rise to power in Germany was largely the result of anti-leftism, as conservative politicians like Paul von Hindenburg allied themselves with the Nazis in order to crush the Communist parties of the day. Similarly, Trump has consolidated power because people like Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are willing to use right-wing populism to keep Democrats from power and thwart left-wing policies like universal health care, gay rights, and abortion rights.
Meanwhile, supposed moderates tie themselves into knots trying to argue that quite-reasonable left-wing political figures like Elizabeth Warren are somehow the same as Trump. Or else they insist that radical protesters on the left are allied with Trump in their assaults on the basic ideological fabric of liberal democracy.
These analyses trip lightly over the fact that the far-right movement has spent decades telling itself exactly this: that anyone to the left of Dwight D. Eisenhower is a radical monster who hates America (though John Birch Society Founder Robert Welch accused even Ike of being "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy"). When supposedly sober pundits blame the left for the rise of Trump, they are simply echoing and cosigning the far-right talking point that the political left is responsible for everything that's ever gone wrong in the world.
This isn't to say that no one should criticize leftist ideas or left-wing activists. Criticism and open debate are healthy and useful. But it's important to recognize, and understand, the place that anti-leftism plays in far-right organizing and in far-right violence. If you want to get on a soapbox to denounce left-wing protesters on campus, remember that Trump is trying to use government power to silence and persecute them. If you disagree with left-leaning
Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar, take a minute to acknowledge the preposterous deluge of right-wing hate and smears that have been directed their way since the 2018 elections. The vitriol is partly because they are women of color. But it's also because they advocate for left-wing goals like higher taxes on the wealthy, or support for Palestinians.
Americans of good faith are hardly required to agree with the leftists whom the far right is targeting. But Americans of good will need to support those leftists when they are so targeted. If you can't find it in yourself to stand for people on the left when they are under attack, you're going to find yourself standing with Trump. And soon thereafter, you may find that you have nowhere to stand at all.
Noah Berlatsky is a contributor to Pacific Standard and the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics and Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism.