Friedrich Nietzsche cautioned those who fight monsters to take care lest they become monsters themselves. He should have also warned those pretending to fight monsters, whose imagined enemies are really projections of their own evils.
Consider Antifa, those self-styled anti-fascists who recently made headlines for harassing the family of Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The paucity of actual Nazis in this country would seem to make Antifa superfluous, but they have a talent for detecting fascists everywhere. Having determined that practically everything and everyone (themselves excepted) is fascist, they spend their free time going about in black shirts smashing things and looking for political opponents to threaten and beat up.
Antifa Is Performative Recreation
Kevin Williamson of National Review evaluates them with pity and disdain: “These play-acting buffoons aren’t the moral equivalent of the French Resistance—they are mincing would-be thugs looking for something that will make them feel better about themselves. Apparently, terrorizing Tucker Carlson’s wife scratches an itch that weed and Netflix don’t.”
Antifa is politics as performative recreation—cosplay and LARPing livened by harassment, vandalism, and moderate violence. The tactics Williamson observed in Portland, “marching through the streets chanting the usual obscenities…blocking traffic, engaging in the casual lawlessness now associated with this city,” are not those of hardened revolutionaries and resistance fighters, but of perpetual adolescents staving off ennui.
They are not much of a threat. The police could quickly clear them out if the feckless city leadership gave them permission, and if the GOP really were fascists then the black-mask LARPers would have been long dead. Portland still harbors many well-armed Republicans, some of whom possess enough firepower to singlehandedly gun down all of Antifa. The danger of Antifa is not that they will do much damage themselves, but that they will normalize political violence for those who would be good at it.
Real political violence is a dreadful thing, and those who yearn for it are ignorant, depraved, or both. The bitterness of civil conflict and war is driven not only by cruelty, ideological fervor, and vengeance, but also by fear. People will do terrible things to avoid being ruled by those who hate them. If (God forbid) it came to us, the fools pretending at it would be among the first to hide, lest they be among the first to die. The Clash sang about the “freedom fighters” of the Spanish Civil War, but they were (at best) patsies fighting on behalf of communist murderers who were as vile as the fascists.
Many of the idealists became monsters themselves. Why some people want to playact at that is mostly a psychological question, although the answers are not obscure—people crave significance, purpose, and accomplishment, and pretending to be an anti-fascist resistance fighter offers a better simulacrum than playing another World War II video game.
How Susceptible Are We to Fascism?
Another more mainstream factor is the belief that we really are just a hop, skip, and executive order away from fascism. Declaring that America is on the verge of authoritarianism is normal, even expected, in prestigious publications. It has been conventional since President Trump was elected.
For all his faults, however, Trump has done little to expand or consolidate presidential power. If Trump appears as a plausible strongman, then the government in general and the presidency in particular have too much power. Much of the progressive anxiety about authoritarianism results from projecting their own philosophy of government onto their political opponents. What they would do to others, they assume others would do to them.
Consider the left’s increasingly hostile treatment of religious liberty. They have passed laws that attempt to allow them to imprison Christians and other dissenters who refuse to promote and celebrate same-sex wedding ceremonies. They have litigated for years to force elderly nuns to fund and facilitate the distribution of birth control. The Obama administration even went to the Supreme Court to argue that the federal government can regulate the hiring and firing of religious ministers.
These are not hot-headed tweets or intemperate remarks. These illiberal positions were carefully considered before being included in laws and legal briefs or promoted in the press. This program is the calculated position of the mainstream left, and it has nothing to do with Trump’s excesses (real and imagined).
Why do they care so much about strong-arming a few nonconformist wedding vendors or dissenting nuns? As policy, it is not worth it. Surely there are more effective ways to distribute birth control than endlessly suing the Little Sisters of the Poor.
But the left is fighting for a principle: that government has the power to legislate (or issue administrative rulings) in all cases whatsoever. Religious liberty is seen as an intolerable limitation on this power, rather than a necessary protection for some of the most authentic and personal aspects of human existence, which should be infringed only in the gravest circumstances.
How to Combat the Expansion of State Power
This repudiation of religious liberty exemplifies progressives’ expansive view of government power and illuminates their fear of what others might do with it. By removing restraints on government, they are creating the conditions for the very thing they claim to fear. One’s political opponents controlling a vastly powerful central authority is frightening. The solution, however, is not to scream “fascism” at every turn, but to dismantle the power structure that might make fascism possible.
Fascism and other forms of authoritarian government require concentrated and unconstrained state power. Thus, genuine anti-fascism opposes the expansion and consolidation of government power, and by this measure the American Constitution is one of the most successful anti-fascist systems of government every established. Above all else, the Founders feared arbitrary power and the elevation of will over law. This fear was rooted in knowledge of history, human nature, and their experiences with self-government and the British.
In his famous speech urging conciliation with the American colonies, the great British statesman Edmund Burke observed that while other peoples might wait for an actual grievance before protesting, Americans would “anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” Among the most odious of approaching tyrannies the colonists detected was found in the Declaratory Act.
The British government had meant this as a face-saving measure during the repeal of the hated Stamp Act, but it horrified American patriots, who saw it as a proclamation of tyranny. It asserted that Parliament “had hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America…in all cases whatsoever.” The power to legislate “in all cases whatsoever” was perceived by the American colonists as a claim to arbitrary power, no more palatable if claimed by a distant Parliament than an absolute monarch.
Learning From Actual Tyranny, Not Imagined Oppression
When the colonists won their freedom and had the chance to establish their own government, they emphasized that Congress did not have the authority to legislate “in all cases whatsoever.” Even though the drafters of the Constitution were working in response to the weakness of the Articles of Confederation, they still filled the Constitution with limitations on the national government, which was also divided between three branches capable of checking each other. The perspicacious paranoia of the anti-Federalists then induced the addition of the Bill of Rights, restraining the government even more.
Furthermore, the states that formed the national union were not subsumed into it, persisting only as administrative districts for the national government. Rather, they retained distinct identities and powers, and were ensured equal representation in the national Senate. Our government was designed to keep California from ruling Idaho, and Texas from tyrannizing Rhode Island. It was designed to prevent any leader or faction from acquiring the power needed for tyranny.
This is basic civics, but it has been obscured as government has swollen, often for ostensibly altruistic reason. As the progressive bromide puts it, “government is the name for what we do together.” But this expansive view of government obviates family and civil society, thereby eliminating possible rivals to state power and leaving individuals dependent on the government.
From the protestors to the pundits, progressives should reflect on the wisdom of a limited and divided government. An unlimited government is only a bad leader or cabal away from authoritarianism, but there is little reason to fear a government that is constrained within our constitutional limits. Adherence to our constitutional system of government remains the surest prophylactic against authoritarianism.