Last week, anti-fascist protesters showed up in Berkeley, California, to courageously battle the Nazi supporters of alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos. Soon after, they likewise put it all on the line to tussle with the right-wing mob supporting radical demagogue Gavin McInnes.
Well, that's how they imagine it in their fever dreams, anyway. In reality, the Nazis didn't show up and the protesters themselves were the only totalitarians in sight. The Black Bloc thugs—"about 150 masked agitators who came onto campus and interrupted an otherwise non-violent protest," says UC-Berkeley—seem to imagine themselves as stars of a Weimar Germany reenactment. In their minds, they march through the streets as the phalanx of the center-left Eiserne Front (or, more likely, the communist Rotfrontkämpferbund), battling their deadly enemies in the Nazi SA between sessions at the beer hall.
But the anti-fascists couldn't find any Nazis at Berkeley. So instead "[t]hey shattered the glass of our Amazon Pickup Center, one of the few places Berkeley students can receive packages without fear of them getting stolen. They created a bonfire of trash in the center of the chaos, picked up barricades to drive through the building's glass walls, set off fireworks, and left a trail of rage-filled destruction in their wake as they stormed the very streets we call home," in the words of a student who saw a peaceful anti-Trump protest hijacked by visitors from 1930.
Oh, and they sold a whole lot of books for Milo, who is less a Nazi than a professional troll and self-promoter who has tied his personal brand to that of Donald Trump.
Brownshirts also missed the date at Gavin McInnes's speech at New York University. Anti-fascist crusaders had to settle for pepper-spraying McInnes himself before he'd even opened his mouth, and cursing out cops for not beating up McInnes and his supporters. And they got themselves arrested for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and criminal mischief.
McInnes, by the way isn't a Nazi either. The co-founder of Vice and serial hipster's major "offense" seems to be that he's a Trump supporter; he's also a self-described "Western chauvinist," seemingly a male chauvinist, and no fan of Islam.
Arguably, a Nazi did show up for the very first act of anti-Nazi direct action of the Trump era, when avowed racist Richard Spencer was violently attacked the day after the new president took office. Ironically, he was giving a TV interview at the time, during which he denied being a neo-Nazi—he's just awful in so many other ways. But that's close enough for the incident to have sparked a Nazi-punching craze, with allegedly serious articles in major publications pondering the ethics of committing battery against people for their political views.
For examples as of yet of an actual violent opponent for American anti-fascists to fight, there is the pro-Trump shooter who wounded a man during a violent anti-Milo protest at the University of Washington. But he claimed self-defense and has yet to be charged with a crime. After that, you'll have to look long and hard for an SA stand-in.
Curiously, each major target of violent anti-fascist ire has actually been further and further from an actual Nazi, from Spencer, to Yiannopoulos, to McInnes. This suggests that the threshold allegedly justifying physical assault is movable, making anybody at the outer edge of the shifting acceptable realm for speech eligible for a punch. If it's Nazis all the way down, ultimately, only two black-clad douchebags will be left standing in a basement somewhere, fists clenched, glaring at each other with each wondering about the other's anti-Nazi bona fides.
Which is a big part of why it's not OK to punch Nazis. And look, we've demonstrated the point in just a month.
There's also a big problem in insisting on Nazi-hunting when the world is so short of real and dangerous examples of the creature. That is, when hunting snipe you're very likely to overlook real game. Perils are already abundant in the form of powerful government officeholders who are not by any means Nazis but still manage to pose threats to personal freedom. There are threats to be found in a president who is thin-skinned and narcissistic with nary a swastika in sight. And there are serious threats inherent in alleged anti-fascist crusaders who throw Molotov cocktails and bricks at people they don't like, demonstrating a Nazi-like intolerance for opposing opinions.
Real dangers tend to come in more complicated form than good guys and bad guys slugging it out in the street.
President Trump, for example gave a horrible response to the Berkeley violence. Leave aside for the moment debates over whether government should be allowed the financial power over universities that comes with funding them, his tweet that "If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view—NO FEDERAL FUNDS?" is just bizarre. Unlike some college administrations, UC-Berkeley administration supported Yiannopoulos's right to speak—the attack came from outside.
Trump is also incredibly thin-skinned with little taste for criticism and in recent days has blasted journalists, judges, and foreign leaders who get under his skin. He is the uber troll, armed with the power of the presidency.
But Trump has also named as his Supreme Court choice Neil Gorsuch, one of the more likely jurists to push back against executive overreach on a variety of issues. Gorsuch's record "suggests he has considerably more respect for the First Amendment than Donald Trump does," Jacob Sullum wrote last week.
Betsy DeVos, Trump's nominee for secretary of education, wants to reduce government control over what is taught and how that knowledge is delivered. That should probably be taken as a good sign by college students concerned about the president's unpredictable personality and authoritarian tendencies.
In short, the political cause of the age isn't an anti-fascist holy war against Nazis; it's a more complicated wariness toward an unpredictable and preening chief executive who inherited excessive power amassed by his already disturbing, but more polished, predecessors.
But that more difficult task is likely to get overshadowed by loons indulging their fantasies about the righteousness of launching punches, bricks, and pepper spray at foes who look less like Weimar-era brownshirts and more like anybody who disagrees with them.