In the latest National Review cover story, Kevin D. Williamson writes an on-the-ground report from an “Abolish ICE PDX” march and explores the historical driving forces behind the “fascists styled as antifascists” who are running amok in Portland, Ore. Here he talks to Madeleine Kearns.
Madeleine Kearns: Other than some local yahoos, what did you see in Portland that’s worthy of national news coverage?
Kevin D. Williamson: Portland is always Portland. I didn’t want to do the Thomas Friedman interview-with-the-taxi-driver thing, but the Uber driver who took me down to where the protest was happening was a Portland caricature, boasting about having been in SDS and talking about the revolution that he was sure was just around the corner. On the more normal political front, I spoke with a local union leader who gave me some pretty good insight on how the Trump phenomenon had radicalized her membership. The thing about places like Portland and San Francisco is that they aren’t nice. They have a reputation for being wooly and hippieish and silly, but they are in fact very angry places, full of very angry people. They are also highly segregated places in ways that the South and Southwest really aren’t. Angry white people with money make the world go ’round, apparently.
Madeleine Kearns: Do you think this behavior is a microcosm of polarized America? Or is it peculiar to certain environments, like what we see on college campuses?
Kevin D. Williamson: I think you get bad behavior where bad behavior is tolerated. In Portland, the blackshirts aren’t a tiny schismatic fashion. There were Democratic-campaign staffers standing out in front of Democratic-campaign events on Election Night chanting along with them.
Madeleine Kearns: You describe the police officers present as being “neutered.” How so?
Kevin D. Williamson: They watched crimes being committed and did nothing.
Madeleine Kearns: How do the police balance peacekeeping with First Amendment rights?
Kevin D. Williamson: There isn’t anything unpeaceable about the exercise of First Amendment rights. I don’t care for mass protests myself — a large crowd of people all facing one direction and chanting seems to me more properly part of a religious exercise than a political one. But if that’s your thing, then by all means go and bark at the moon. But when people start blocking traffic, pounding on the hoods of cars, damaging property, committing assaults, that’s a different thing. And I don’t think there’s really much of a First Amendment issue presented by policing ordinary crime when that crime happens in the course of a political action.
Madeleine Kearns: You’ve written that Portland’s mayor is partly responsible. In terms of policy — what do you think could be done?
Kevin D. Williamson: He might consider asking the police officers who work for him to enforce the law.
Madeleine Kearns: In what way were the anti-fascist protesters you saw fascists?
Kevin D. Williamson: They are the American Left’s answer to the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale, down to the penchant for black shirts. They perform the same function: using violence and intimidation to silence political opposition and to terrorize the political opposition. “Fascist” is a notoriously difficult word to define, but they are as close to a textbook case as you are going to find.
Madeleine Kearns: You write that their “idol is the proletariat rather than the nation.” Could you please unpack that?
Kevin D. Williamson: Utopian political movements — and all totalitarian movements are basically utopian — love the world, except for all the people in it. They all are antiliberal and they all seek to degrade the individual and individualism. Their liturgy requires an object of adoration, and it’s usually the same object: the People, or, as American populists like to put it, We the People. For traditional nationalists, it’s the Nation in abstract and idealized form; for socialists, it’s always been the proletariat, who apparently are the only people included in the People. If you’re acting in the name of the People, you can brutalize persons. The interests of the People require a gulag, the interests of the People require a death camp, and if the people have to suffer for the People, then so be it.
Madeleine Kearns: You’ve noted that these “hooligans” do not always call themselves “Antifa.” How can we identify them if not by name? What are their defining characteristics?
Kevin D. Williamson: Their defining characteristic is a behavior, not an ideology or factional plumage. Violence is violence.
Madeleine Kearns: You quoted the Freudian-Marxist social critic Erich Fromm, who wrote in 1941: “Freedom is not less endangered if attacked in the name of anti-Fascism or in that of outright Fascism.” I wonder if you could say more on that, perhaps by responding to Herbert Marcuse’s idea in his essay “Repressive Tolerance” (1965) that “liberating tolerance . . . would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.”
Kevin D. Williamson: Marcuse is sometimes oversimplified. I’ve been spending a lot of time with “repressive tolerance” for The Smallest Minority, a book I’ve been writing on the subject. Like a lot of political thinkers, he is least understood by his admirers. What Antifa thinks, and what I suppose they think Marcuse thought, if they bother to think about that sort of thing at all, is that tolerating wicked political ideas is in and of itself repressive, and, of course, they believe that the Right is the home of wicked political ideas. Hence the slogans such as “No free speech for Nazis.” But I don’t think that they are really very much informed by Marcuse. I think that they have stumbled onto the Catholic conception of “scandal” and believe that allowing a bad example to stand in public will lead more people into sin.
Madeleine Kearns: For the purposes of your reporting, you were in and amongst the Portland mob. Did you get any sense of what might attract someone to join them?
Kevin D. Williamson: Loneliness. Almost none of this is really about politics at heart. Younger people have lives disproportionately involved with sterile social-media relationships, and relationships in the real world are increasingly informed by the social-media sensibility, which is one of mutual instrumentation. We could choose any metric of success and happiness we want, and we’ve settled on the crude quantification of love and human connection. The people suffering under that particular boot-heel don’t realize that they are wearing the boot, and that they have the power to take it off of their own necks at any time they want, that they can take a little freedom out for a spin and see if they like it. They don’t need a revolution. They need Jesus.
Madeleine Kearns: Is Donald Trump — in rhetoric or in deed — partly to blame?
Kevin D. Williamson: The Israelites had their golden calf. We have our golden toilet. Donald Trump is to blame for Donald Trump. That’s enough for any one man to bear.
Madeleine Kearns: You wrote, “Once political violence is out of the box, it is hard to put it back in.” Can we expect more of this?
Kevin D. Williamson: I don’t know. Technology and political liberalism (and, since this is for National Review, I think we can use “liberalism” in its traditional sense, not in the sense of “Durka durka liberals hate Christmas!”) both have the potential to amplify the individual. The same system that brings you Steve Jobs brings you Timothy McVeigh. Liberalism creates political conditions — tolerance, openness, freedom of speech — that can be exploited by illiberal forces. That’s the basic insight of Karl Loewenstein’s “militant democracy,” which also figures prominently in The Smallest Minority. Loewenstein and other advocates of what the Germans call streitbare Demokratie argue that the defenders of the liberal-democratic order must sometimes use illiberal and undemocratic means to defend that order from existential threats. This is the constitutional principle under which the Germans and Austrians do things that we do not generally do in the United States, such as ban certain political books or prohibit certain political parties. If the blackshirts understood their own political priors — and they do not; they simply are overwhelmed by hatred and revulsion, for themselves above all — then they would understand themselves as acting in theory under the principle of militant democracy. And that, of course, is why it is rhetorically necessary for everybody you disagree with to be a Nazi: Practically anything is defensible in a fight against Nazis. And that’s how we get to the kind of political rhetoric that insists that people who don’t want to use racial criteria in public life are Nazis, people who don’t think that abortion should be used as an instrument of eugenics are Nazis, people who want the top marginal tax rate set 3 percent lower are Nazis, etc. These are stupid times.
Madeleine Kearns: What’s the cultural antidote to Antifa?
Kevin D. Williamson: One of the lessons of Animal Farm is: You can’t reason a pig out of its pigness. T. S. Eliot once described the folly of “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” And then he adds: “But the man that is will shadow the man that pretends to be.” Citizenship is hard work. Being a subject is a lot easier. That’s part of the allure of being a subject of a totalitarian state. Under totalitarianism, the state does all of the political work, and people are just livestock to be milked, shorn, and, occasionally, slaughtered. Some people are very comfortable being livestock and really embrace that bovine-ovine role with all they’ve got. People have the power to start being human whenever they want. But work, including the work of citizenship, is a means, and people have to decide for themselves that the end is worth the work. Right now, these blackshirts and their admirers and imitators are comfortable in their intellectual sties.