The Rising Wave of Fascist Terror: Notes on Its Organization and Disruption


Josh Sturman | Social Movement Studies | Analysis | November 15th, 2018



The week of October 21st saw three high profile, fascist terrorist attacks. The first of these was an unsuccessful attack on (purportedly) liberal political leaders: pipe bombs were sent to several prominent Democratic Party politicians , including former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The next two were more successful and explicitly racist in nature. On October 24, a terrorist failed to gain access to a Black church near Louisville, KY, then crossed the street to a grocery store and murdered two Black shoppers . The following Saturday, October 27, a terrorist entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA and opened fire, killing eleven Jewish worshipers . This week of terror was followed by a high-profile attack the following week in Tallahassee, FL, when a misogynistic attacker murdered two women in a yoga studio on November 3.

We must not doubt that all of these attacks were fascist in nature. Each attack targeted a type of person on which fascist, extralegal violence is traditionally inflicted: the perceived left, subordinated races, and women. At least one of the terrorists, the Pittsburgh shooter, was tied to the fascistic social media site Gab , a refuge for right-wing extremists banned from Twitter and Facebook.

These four attacks, like all acts of terrorism, served a double function. On the one hand, they serve to inflict immediate harm on the "enemies" of fascism, whether these enemies be political opponents, such as "left-wing" politicians, or people whose free existence is a fundamental threat to the fascist project, such as Black people, Jews, and women. On the other hand, the attacks serve to create a climate of fear, a climate eventually intended to scare opponents of fascism out of exercising their freedom.

Students of the American fascist movement will recognize that all four of these attacks fit into the long-time white supremacist strategy of "leaderless resistance." First proposed by Louis Beam in 1983 , the strategy marked a departure from the attempt to build popular institutions such as the Ku Klux Klan towards the reconstitution of the movement into one in which "all individuals and groups operate independently of each other, and never report to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction." The adoption of leaderless resistance as a key organizing principle encouraged fascist activists to act without directly consulting one another, instead interpreting the public proclamations of fascist leaders by themselves and acting as they see fit. It took and continues to take advantage of the widespread authoritarianism, racism, and misogyny embedded in American culture, gambling that these ideas can be activated in independent activists through the piecemeal diffusion of fascist propaganda, thereby creating a general social attitude of support for and fear of fascists without relying on the establishment of a major institutional presence dedicated to supporting the fascist cause.

To date, the largest successful act of terrorism carried out on the basis of leaderless resistance was Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols' bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 , which killed 168 people, including many children. Other high profile terrorist attacks carried out on the basis of this strategy other than those mentioned above include Frazier Glenn Miller's attack on a Kansas Jewish Community Center in April, 2014 , Elliot Rodger's rampage through Isla Vista, CA the following month , and Dylann Roof's massacre of Black churchgoers in July, 2015 .

One major advantage of this strategy for fascist organizing (which is emphasized by Beam) is that the decentralization of activism keeps movement leaders safe from activist criminality. Popular institutions are easy targets of government suppression because such institutions link everyone from foot soldiers to the institutions' upper echelons through the institutional hierarchy. As a result, taking down someone at any level of the hierarchy can lead to the imprisonment of all members on conspiracy and collaboration charges and a resultant disorganization. By keeping white-supremacist cells as small as possible, the leaderless resistance is able to avoid large-scale suppression by either the government or anti-racist and anti-fascist movements through a separation of propagandists and theorists from terrorist activists. Strategies developed publicly by fascist ideologues can be taken up by individuals or small cadres who serve as martyrs without the ideologues facing repercussions greater than public censure.

Another advantage of leaderless resistance (which goes unmentioned by Beam) is that very few of those engaged in the strategy need to be cognizant of their participation. Only a handful of ideologues need to be intentionally focused on shifting the Overton window - the limits of acceptable discourse - for efforts to be successful. A small but dedicated group of theorists and propagandists making a concerted effort can move fascist concepts into the mainstream. Once this is accomplished, mainstream politicians and media outlets are able to whip up racist, misogynistic, anti-leftist, and anti-liberal hysteria to the point where lone-wolf terrorists are bound to emerge. Knowledge of this phenomenon helps explain why aforementioned terrorist Frazier Glenn Miller , who previously maintained ties to the white supremacist terrorist cell The Order , spent the first several decades of his life propagandizing through the KKK before picking up guns, as well as why former terrorist Don Black has abandoned his paramilitary activities in favor of running the influential white-supremacist website, Stormfront. When fascist ideologies penetrate mainstream society, some number of people will be brought to the point of "leaderless" violence regardless of their familiarity with white-supremacist tactics.

In light of the above, it is clear that fascist media platforms like Gab and Stormfront, as well as "fellow-traveler" forums like 4chan and 8chan and offline institutions like Stormfront book clubs, are crucial aspects of the success of leaderless resistance. These platforms and others like them play several roles. First, they serve as spaces for the development of fascist theory, locations where committed activists can further fascist doctrines and where inductees can receive indoctrination. Second, they serve as repositories for mainstream figures to draw ideas from, either directly or through layers of distillation as concepts are taken up and filtered through mainstream platforms like Twitter, once the Overton window has moved. Third, they serve as vehicles for the highest levels of agitation, pushing those on the edge of terrorism to engaging in leaderless resistance.

Despite the importance of these right-wing spaces, explicitly and implicitly fascist forums are not a sufficient environment for the production of lone-wolf fascist terrorists in and of themselves. As indicated above, they remain reliant on fascist ideology mainstreaming itself through public figures for the strategy to be fully successful. Wittingly or not, these public figures make their own contribution to acts of terror carried out in the name of leaderless resistance. Most obviously and as previously noted, anti-democratic, racist, and misogynistic statements from prominent politicians and media personalities contribute to fascist agitation. They also both create and reflect public support for terrorist activities. Racist statements from Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson therefore contribute to the spread of racist propaganda and indicate to fascist theorists that large segments of the public are supportive of (aspects of) the fascist cause. Even more crucial than statements are actions of material support. Presidential pardons like those given to prominent racists Dinesh D'Souza and Joe Arpaio demonstrate that elites and the public are willing to support them (to a degree) not only rhetorically, but concretely. Media narratives downplaying or dismissing the threat of fascism, such as the widespread claim that the bombs sent to Democrats were an elaborate hoax designed to discredit the Republican Party , provide space for fascists to move in public without fear of social exclusion, let alone retribution.

What is most important to note throughout in an examination of leaderless resistance is that while the strategy has led to a relatively non-institutional fascist movement, it has not led to an unorganized one. Fascist leaders, theorists, and propagandists are linked to fascist activists, including terrorist activists, through formal, predictably operating channels. Fascist ideology, tactics, strategies, and "commands" are declared in explicitly fascist venues such as Stormfront, Radix Journal, or the National Policy Institute Forum. They are then conveyed to larger, "fellow-traveler" locations like 4chan, where they are picked up and placed on larger, politically neutral sites like Facebook and Twitter, and then heard from the mouths of politicians like Donald Trump, media figures like Tucker Carlson, and celebrities like Kanye West. At each stage of transmission, the ideology and commands are available to be heard by activists, at louder and louder volumes at each stage, some of whom inevitably begin leaderless resistance, thereby reliably producing the results sought by those who initiate the process. Additionally, each stage provides the initiators of the process with feedback on methods of refining the content and distribution techniques of their propaganda as they can see which ideas are and are not transferred and the degree to which ideas are distorted as they pass from one place to another. What ultimately links all the locations is the shared epistemological framework the concepts produce and maintain as they are transmitted, a fascist framework initiated by a small cadre of fascist activists for the purpose of agitating leaderless acts of reactionary violence.

The threat of fascist insurgency must be taken seriously. The recent attacks prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that fascist violence is both immanent and rising. Moreover, the above analysis demonstrates it is a highly organized movement. It must be challenged. There are several areas of social existence in which this can be done.

First, fascist space in the range of acceptable discourse must be eliminated. Allowing any space for fascist propaganda is, as discussed above, a key hinge of the fascist leaderless resistance strategy, without which the production of fascist terrorists and activists cannot operate. Actions taken by major corporations and private citizens alike to remove fascist media platforms from the web, as well as successful struggles to prevent fascists from propagandizing on college campuses , mark the most significant contributions of recent vintage to this effort. Unfortunately, it is likely that such actions are too little, too late. Now that mainstream, widely-followed political figures and media outlets have adopted fascistic rhetoric, fascist discourse has probably saturated mainstream culture to a point where simple "no-platforming" is no longer a viable strategy. At present it seems the far-right has opened the Overton window for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, such actions demonstrate widespread disapproval of fascism, racism, and misogyny that may serve to demoralize and demobilize fascist activists in the long term. Such actions may also serve to disrupt fascist organization in ways that cannot be accurately valued at the present moment.

More important than closing the discursive space in which fascists operate is taking away the material base of fascist activists. Since the base of dedicated fascist activists is relatively small, crippling that base is both simpler than closing the Overton window and an effective way to smash the beating heart of fascism. Several strategies have been successfully employed to this end. Once again, major corporations have reluctantly, and perhaps ironically, played a part in the fight, with prominent payment processing and fundraising companies taking adverse actions against major fascist organizations , though they have often not gone far enough. Other effective actions have seen fascists lose their jobs and face difficulty at their universities . Attacking the material base of fascist operations disrupts fascists' ability to participate in activism by increasing the cost of such participation or simply overwhelming them with the difficulty of maintaining their everyday existence. Additionally, it can serve to prevent the process of fascist organization from beginning when it is the originators of fascist theory who are attacked. This said, assaults on the material base have limited effectiveness in combating fascist terror carried out by already radicalized activists. The leaderless resistance strategy intentionally relies on terrorists to commit to, plan, and carry out attacks over relatively brief time periods, thereby avoiding detection (and consequently resistance) until the time of the attack. Furthermore, because most terrorists die or go to jail in the course of their action, attacking their economic base is of limited effectiveness even if their motives are suspected ahead of time. It takes few resources to stage a terror attack when the attacker does not intend to live after the fact. For these reasons, depriving key fascists of a material base does more to stunt the movement over a longer period of time than to prevent bloodshed in the near future.

Another, and possibly the most, effective means of fighting fascism is to socially isolate fascists. Isolation destroys fascists ability to evangelize. It prevents the transmission of fascist ideology from one part of the leaderless organization to another, thereby limiting fascists' numbers and preventing the spread of radicalization. Moreover, disrupting social ties among fascist activists using methods like infiltration creates paranoia and lack of trust in the fascist community, effectively preventing inter-fascist solidarity. These strategies can even disrupt leaderless resistance, since confidence in community support and the agitation of friends can lead to individuals undertaking terrorist actions. Yet even attacks on the social lives of fascists face obstacles. The biggest of these challenges is the internet, which serves as a space for geographically and physically isolated and communally shunned fascists to come together. Moreover, fascist internet spaces are easily reconstituted after disruptions . Even more importantly, anti-fascist organizers must be cognizant their efforts serve to isolate only the most committed fascists. Isolating members of the general public with some authoritarian, racist, or misogynistic tendencies is both impracticable given the reach of these tendencies in American culture and risks stigmatizing the naive who would, if treated with care, abandon fascist leanings in favor of liberal and leftist positions.

Fascism must also be fought through a transformation of left and liberal institutions. Activist organizations must add a function of machine politics to themselves at the same time that the machine political operations in existence must begin to organize direct actions. The fascist right has already perfected this strategy through organizations such as Focus on the Family and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). These organizations keep activists mobilized and furthering the fascist agenda in periods between election cycles, while ensuring a base for right-wing politicians in election periods. The role of far-right mainstream politicians in promoting fascist terrorism and agitating the fascist base, and the government's ability to suppress both fascist and left-wing movements as it likes, is too important to cede in the anti-fascist struggle. However, mobilizing simply for elections requires enormous effort and resources to reestablish electoral organizations every two to four years. By adding machine aspects to anti-fascist organizations and activist aspects to machine organizations, the most important work, that is, direct action, can be accomplished while a grip on the formal levers of political power is maintained.

A broad-based coalition of leftists and liberals must agree on common terms for fighting the fascist threat. Fascism is able to gain power quickly in a fractured political environment, where factionalism and infighting keep anti-fascists of all varieties fighting with each other and away from anti-fascist organizing. While a revolutionary left consensus may be the ideal tool for mobilizing against fascism, it is not a necessary one. Common terms enable different tendencies in the anti-fascist struggle to fight a common enemy how they see fit while remaining in solidarity with those with whom they are not in total agreement. "We must," above all and in the words of Assata Shakur, "love each other and support each other." We must help each other grow and stand in solidarity, instead of indulging in petty personal disputes in the face of growing fascism. We must resolve differences with respect for one another and without forcing our comrades to abandon deeply held beliefs that, while contrary to ours, do not harm the anti-fascist struggle. The fascists are well organized and "we have nothing to lose but our chains."


Josh is a bike messenger living in Appalachia. He received his MA in philosophy from Duquesne University and is a member of the IWW and DSA. He has been active in the labor, anti-racist, and anti-fascist movements since he was 18.