A quick tutorial on how to deal with occupying Nazis:
1.) Apply bayonet liberally to carotid artery
2.) Use Nazi as tackling dummy
3.) Go jogging to reduce tension caused by nicotine addiction and worry over narrowly escaped death by slow torture
4.) Stop at your local barber shop for a shave.
At the beginning of Army of Shadows, In Jean-Pierre Melville’s bleak, unromantic film about the French Resistance, Philippe Gerbier, a bourgeois anti-fascist, is sent to a Vichy detention camp. He sizes up his fellow prisoners, quickly dismissing one middle-aged man who was arrested for calling Admiral Darlan “a jackass” in public as “a simpleton.” Gerbier, the right-wing, Gaullist resistance leader, isn’t fucking around. He’s a civilian who hates violence. He’s also a brainy civil engineer who’s under no illusions about what fighting the Nazis means. Not only was calling a high-placed Vichy collaborator a “jackass” in public a useless display of what I would call “performative anti-fascism.” It got the poor fool locked up in a detention camp. Gerbier doesn’t need an ineffectual loudmouth. He needs someone who would sneak up behind Darlan, blow his brains out, and never talk about, even to his closest friends. When he finally decides upon someone he thinks he can trust to help him escape, it’s not a fellow bourgeoisie. It’s a nineteen-year-old communist.
“Comrade,” he says to the young man, who’s figured out how to short out the power to the guard tower.
“Are you a communist?” his new communist friend responds.
“No,” Gerbier says, “but I do have comrades.”
We never find out whether or not the young leftist militant’s plan would have worked. The very next day Gerbier, who manages the entire resistance network in Marseilles, is transferred to the Gestapo in Paris. Gerbier’s situation has gone from inconvenient – the Vichy camp is run by French guards who seem to have no particular interest in doing much more than using their position to scam extra food on the black market – to desperate. The Gestapo are now aware that they have captured a high-value prisoner, who they can now brutally torture over the course of a week or two to find out what he knows. Sitting in the waiting room at the hotel the Nazis have converted into a torture chamber, Gerbier realizes he has only one chance. There’s a single guard in the room, and two guards outside. He’s got about five minutes to kill or be killed. After convincing another prisoner to join him in his attempt to escape – Gerbier will take care of the guard and they’ll each run in opposition directions – he manages to snatch the sentry’s own bayonet out of its sheath, cut his throat, bull his way past another guard, and run out into the street. We never find out what happens to Gerbier’s fellow detainee, but from all appearances, the other Frenchman is machine gunned. Gerbier has not only slit a man’s throat – and Melville always goes out of his way to show that the typical German occupier isn’t a monster but just a soldier doing his job – he’s made a calculated decision to use another resistance fighter as a decoy.
That, my friends, is what anti-fascism is all about.
Fast forward to 2016. Donald J. Trump, the far-right-wing populist billionaire has been elected President, and we have a lot more performative anti-fascist “simpletons” than we have hardcore resistance fighters. Thank God. The last thing any healthy society needs is a lot of potential terrorists and armed guerilla fighters running around. What category do I fall into? I’m in the ineffectual, loudmouth “simpleton” category, of course. I enjoy ranting on social media in my own name. I like writing long essays where I use derogatory epithets about the forty-fifth president’s tiny hands and tiny dick. Over the next few years, I’ll probably go to dozens of protests in New York and Washington. I’ll probably carry signs. I’ll chant. “Donald Trump you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide.” I may even spend a day or two in The Tombs, but the odds of my grabbing a baseball bat, masking up, and and inflicting a little well-deserved traumatic brain injury on a racist skinhead out in the streets are probably pretty small. That would mean risking real prison time, not a weekend in central booking with potheads and drunk drivers, but a hard core “pound you in the ass federal penitentiary” with rapists and murderers.
If Donald Trump is just another conservative, that’s OK. Eventually the morons who voted for him will realize they’ve been had. The Democrats will stage a comeback and we’ll get President Sanders or President Ellison exactly the way we got President Obama. We may even get a real social democrat, single payer, and tuition free public universities. We survived Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, so we’ll survive Donald Trump, right? I suppose it depends on who “we” are.
For Philippe Gerbier it was easy. The guys in jackboots speaking German wearing swastikas were probably the bad guys. For most of the French, Catholic bourgeoisie in 1941, it wasn’t. Perhaps the Germans were better than the communists. Perhaps they could even be used as muscle to suppress the pesky French working-class, who have had a annoying habit of going on strike and hitting the streets ever since 1789. Even if you recognized the Nazis as evil, you might still hesitate to act. Was it really worth it to assassinate a local Gauleiter or blow up a weapons dump? Wouldn’t the Germans simply pick ten hostages (or a hell of a lot more) and line them up against the wall? Wouldn’t it be easier just to wait for the Americans and British to invade? Of course it would. The problem, however, is that while you were waiting, the Nazis were transporting French Jews back to Auschwitz. The French economy had been mobilized in support of the invasion of the Soviet Union and the eventual extermination of the Slavic people. Your children would not grow up in a “free” (or even a bourgeois liberal) country. In the United States, in turn, not one of those gigantic protests during the Bush years did anything to stop the invasion of Iraq, which killed five thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi. All they did was make us feel better about ourselves. Singing “We Shall Overcome” while masturbating would have done just as much good, and saved a lot of bus fare to Washington.
Whether or not Donald J. Trump turns out to be a more destructive President than George W. Bush remains to be seen. Some liberals argue that Trump’s appointment of the racist and antisemitic Stephen Bannon as his “chief strategist” indicates that he’s no different from David Duke. They certainly have a point. It’s a bad sign, but their solutions — complain about how you supported Bernie and not Hillary, wear a paperclip in solidarity with people of color, double down on the same old identity politics — are inadequate to say the least. Other liberals, like the eternally slimy Islamophobe Bill Maher, are ready to make nice. Even though they argued only last week that Trump was of a magnitude worse than Bush, many of them, including Barack Obama, have begun to hope for the best. You don’t get rich and famous, get a TV show or climb to the top of the Democratic unless you know how to navigate power. Mainstream liberals are predisposed to compromise. In 1941, the French Resistance was made up almost entirely of left wing extremists, communists, outcasts and misfits. A militant resistance against Trump, starting now, is likely to be the same way. “Normal” people rarely, if ever, join a resistance movement until it’s on the verge of winning, until the fascists are identified so clearly as fascists there’s no doubt in the mind of even the most respectable bourgeoisie. Ambitious mediocrities – like Maurice Papon or Adolf Eichmann — usually collaborate with the occupiers.
There is rarely a clear line between “fascist” and “just another capitalist politician.” Was George W. Bush a fascist? Yes and no. Is Donald Trump a fascist? Yes and no. Has Barack Obama proven himself a fascist by using taxpayer money to bail out Wall Street, keep Gitmo open, and lock Chelsea Manning in solitary confinement in the hope that she’ll commit suicide? Yes and no. There’s no litmus test to determine whether you’re in a country that’s “simply moving in a reactionary direction” (in which case protest and democratic politics are still the best solution) or if it’s “actually positively we’re really not fucking kidding this time it’s really Nazi Germany” (when the best solution, if you don’t have the Soviet Army at your disposal, is probably terrorism). As Robert Paxton demonstrated in his seminal work “The Anatomy of Fascism,” fascism is a historical process, not any one particular government or individual. By the time you think it’s fascism, it probably is. It’s also probably already too late to do anything about it.
The best way to deal with fascism is to never to let it get close, to keep pushing your country in the direction of more and more freedom and democracy, to demand more freedom, even when everybody else thinks you already have enough. If in 1948 we had elected Henry Wallace instead of Harry Truman president and stopped the Cold War before it began, we never would have had a President Trump. If in 1950, we had stood up and smashed McCarthyism before any innocent people got hurt, we never would have had a President Trump. If in 1973, we had pushed the Watergate Investigation through to their logical conclusion, if we had immediately poured into the streets to protest Ford’s pardon, we never would have had a President Trump. Had we impeached Ronald Reagan over Iran Contra we wouldn’t have had a President Trump. If Jesse Jackson and the “Rainbow Coalition” had taken over the Democratic Party – and kept Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council out of power – we wouldn’t have had a President Trump. If had stopped NAFTA, the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, mass incarceration and welfare reform, we never would have had to deal with President Trump. If we had kept our heads after 9/11, and not let George W. Bush destroy our civil liberties or invade Iraq, we never would have had President Trump. If we had pushed Nancy Pelosi into impeaching George W. Bush, we wouldn’t have had President Trump. If we had stopped President Obama from bailing out Wall Street or consolidating the Bush torture and surveillance state, we never would have had to deal with Trump.
But we’re here now. We’ve arrived at the point where the question of whether or not we live under a fascist government is no longer ridiculous. So what are we prepared to do?